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Working with amazing orangutans

My name is Danielle Schauer, and I am currently an Orangutan Keeper at Zoo Atlanta. Since becoming an animal care professional, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing species, but I have never had the chance of working with great apes until now. I wanted to use this Keeper Stories blog to describe my experience working with these individuals so far. 

A lot of my previous experience has been working with hoofstock and carnivores, so I was not sure what to fully expect when making the move to primates. Some of the things that have really stuck out to me is their intelligence and curiosity, especially when it comes to enrichment and problem solving. All animals residing at Zoo Atlanta are on a scheduled enrichment program that is designed to elicit natural behaviors, so the enrichment items are carefully selected and tailored to the animals to help challenge them. When working with animals as intelligent as orangutans, those items can be as unique as touch-screen computers or PVC pipes filled with food items. The touch-screen computers are used to provide mental stimulation by offering them games like match, and when they match the correct items a treat is provided. The PVC pipes may sound less fancy and complex than a touch-screen computer, but it is very impressive to watch them problem solve and turn something as simple as a stick into a tool and retrieve the food item from the PVC. The coordination and patience it takes to achieve this is amazing, and the animals have become very skilled in completing this task. I have been impressed daily in watching these animals come up with creative ways to perform tasks and seeing the ways they interact with each other and their care team.

Another thing that has been interesting to witness is the level of training that we are able to accomplish with orangutans. Again, their intelligence plays a huge role in their training, and it allows us to introduce complex behaviors to them. All animals at Zoo Atlanta are trained using positive reinforcement, and we introduce behaviors that allows the animals to assist us in their own veterinary care. For instance, most of the orangutans are trained to present various body parts such as fingers, toes, stomachs, tongues, ears, back and shoulders. Some of these behaviors may seem small and insignificant, but these behaviors allow us to access different parts of their bodies which can be very helpful if we needed to take a closer look at any of those areas. They are also trained on more complex behaviors such as scale, blood pressure, and ultrasound. Using these more difficult behaviors allows to accomplish things like accurately acquiring weights, obtaining blood pressure, and performing ultrasounds on pregnant females. Again, all these behaviors are done voluntarily using positive reinforcement and are huge in helping us monitor their health and care. My new role as a Primate Keeper has been very interesting and a huge learning experience so far, and I am looking forward to learning more and growing in this new area of my career.  

Danielle S.
Keeper III, Primates

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