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A Training Update: Niabi Zoo One Year Later

Time flies when you’re having fun!

Welcome back! Wow, it is hard to believe that one year has passed since the two-part series about our animal training programs at Niabi Zoological Society was shared on the Karen Pryor Clickertraining website. (Click here to read Part One of Building Behaviors at the Niabi Zoo, and click here to read Part Two.) We were also honored to have our training program featured in Quad-Cities Online this year. Click here to read that article.

Mimi nursing Kito

Mimi nursing her male calf, Kito.

Progress in both animal and human training

We are delighted to share a third installment of the Niabi Zoo story. This “Anniversary update” describes the exciting progress the zoo training programs have made this year. In order to grow and improve, modify and enhance, every training program should be evaluated on a regular basis. It’s important to revisit and revise goals, and assess and celebrate achievements. At Niabi Zoo we do that regularly, looking ahead to see what the possibilities are, and making plans to ensure those possibilities are realized. We continue to build collaborations with others in our field, collaborations that emphasize the varied facets of our shared expertise.

This past year has been full of growth and excitement at Niabi Zoo! Two healthy reticulated giraffe calves were born, and the colobus troop has grown by one new baby, too—all while the zoo was under renovation. Through it all, we augmented and advanced our animal training programs to start fresh in 2011.

To help move our programs forward, we looked at the human end of training. After all, we experience day-to-day interactions with more than just the animals in our care; we have frequent interactions and conversations with our colleagues and zoo patrons. As great trainers know, good people skills only enhance and improve any work surroundings. Our goals in the human area include helping others know what is expected of them without nagging, and focusing training beyond the animals and toward zookeeper continuing education and professional growth.

Professional growth for exotic animal keepers and trainers

Professional growth opportunities are valuable, and validating, for workers in many fields. But where do zookeepers and exotic animal trainers go to enrich their education? Where can they surround themselves with like-minded professionals who share the same passion for excellence in their areas of specialty and species interest? Here are a few excellent continuing education resources to investigate:

But where do zookeepers and exotic animal trainers go to enrich their education?

Some Niabi Zoo zookeepers have attended AZA-sponsored staff/animal management and husbandry courses and seminars. Others have attended Ken Ramirez’s Animal Training course. I was fortunate enough to co-author a presentation at the 2009 ABMA Conference in Rhode Island, along with veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi of Animal Behavior Partners and KPA faculty member Julie Shaw from a leading midwest veterinary university.

Time for TAGteach!

In 2008, while I was a student in the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Dog Trainer Program, I learned about Theresa McKeon and TAGteach International. When Niabi Zoo heard that I attended Theresa’s TAGteach seminar in Chicago to earn primary certification, they offered to host her at the zoo in March 2010. Theresa invited TAGteach Level 3 instructor Eva Bertilsson from Sweden to join us as well. We were very lucky to have both women teaching a two-day seminar at the zoo, working with us toward several of our goals. TAGteach lessons helped staff members achieve even more success clicker training the zoo animals. The lessons also helped staff members feel upbeat about themselves and their many workday interactions.

The TAGteach lessons also helped staff members feel upbeat about themselves and their many workday interactions.

We received very positive comments from keepers who attended the seminar:

“Clicker training has opened my eyes to a new perspective of zookeeping. I have been able to do daily husbandry and vet visits with so much less stress on the animals. In the last two years I have seen animals go from not wanting any interaction to waiting to be trained on a daily basis. Clicker training and TAGteach have had nothing but a positive effect in my life and on the animals at Niabi Zoo.” ~Jessi Lench Porter
“The clicker provided our team with an effective tool of communication that transformed the behaviors of a variety of species such as giraffe, gibbon, lion, and jaguar. Clicker training brought our overall animal management to the highest level of care.

To enhance and expand the communication skills of our staff, we were introduced to the principles of TAGteach by Theresa McKeon. Theresa's contagious enthusiasm about TAG brought to light how we all process information in a variety of ways, which sometimes leads to different interpretations in our everyday communications. Using the concepts of TAG, we were able to clearly set criteria and offer positive feedback to each other. We can all benefit from this type of teaching, which focuses on what is correct rather than the opposite.” ~Colleen Stalf
“Clicker training has made me so much more aware of my interactions with animals (and people), has taught me patience, and has helped me understand that effective communication can work wonders. Training a lion or having a positive interaction with a coworker, the skills have been invaluable. Such a warm feeling of accomplishment to realize that small, positive steps can lead to a finished behavior that will reduce stress levels during veterinary procedures. Clicker training can deepen the relationship and create trust between trainer and animal. When you start training animals and practice that positive spin on life, it becomes second-nature and is so much easier to transfer to your human relationships.” ~Mandy Turnbull

Observing Theresa and Eva while they taught was extremely reinforcing for me. I knew that the keepers would gain first-rate information easily translatable and applicable to their daily interactions with people and with animals. We all learned how to be more effective, proactive, and positive with our communication skills. We had a lot of fun with this process!

TAGteach in action: using food tools

One of the safety goals we worked on with the keepers during Theresa’s workshop was feeding the large cats (lion, tigers, cougars, leopards, jaguar, and bobcats) with tongs, spoons, or feed poles. These tools keep zookeepers’ hands safe. For the keepers, learning how to mark the desired behavior with the clicker and then move the hand to load the primary reinforcer can prove challenging! We found it helpful to practice clicker mechanics before we actually trained and fed any animal, and made that step part of a fun training game. But the keepers’ biggest challenge was to replace a previous behavior (feeding the large cats with their hands), especially since the behavior had a strong reinforcement history.

Niabi zoo staff practicing TAGteach skills.
Video courtesy of Theresa McKeon.

In this video, keepers Colleen, Mandy, and Jessi practice feeding techniques using TAGteach. To determine their focus they used the Focus Funnel, a strategy for organizing and delivering verbal lessons and instructions to a learner.

It begins with: The Lesson is…
Follows with: The Directions are…
And ends with a TAGpoint of 5 words or less: The TAG point is:

Using the focus funnel reduces the amount of language that must be processed by a learner right before attempting a behavior.

Lesson: The hand that delivers the treat needs to go to a neutral place immediately after delivering the reinforcement. This way the lion will turn his direction back to you instead of following the feeding stick. We call that neutral place “home.”
Directions: Move your feeding hand back to home position immediately after delivery.
TAGpoint: Initiate hand to home.

Training sequence: Mandy cues mouth open behavior-> Jessi offers mouth open behavior-> Mandy marks behavior-> Mandy moves reinforcement hand to place food onto pole-> Mandy places food into Jessi’s hand-> Mandy initiates hand to home (TAGpoint).

Watch Colleen in the background as she observes the sequence. She is observing the series of behaviors patiently without talking and without giving extra verbal information to Mandy. The TAGpoint was discussed ahead of time. Each time Mandy offers the TAGpoint (initiate hand to home) successfully, Colleen marks that behavior with a clicker.

TAGteach lesson: feeding the lion with tongs

Later, as I worked on earning TAGteach Level 1 certification, we focused on Jessi’s TAGpoint: feed with tongs. At ~36 seconds into the video loop, you can see Jessi self-assess as she reaches for the food with her bare hand, only to correct herself and then reach behind her with the tongs. My role was to mark with the clicker each time she offered the TAGpoint successfully.

Theresa McKeon was as positive as the Niabi keepers and I were about the TAGteach learning experience. She saw that we all understood the connections between the human and the animal training, and worked hard to benefit from the positive principles in action. She shared some of her thoughts about the Niabi seminar:

“When I was asked to present a TAGteach workshop to the keepers at Niabi Zoo, I was beyond thrilled. Not only for the opportunity to work with Laura, but to see the clicker training technology come full circle. Laura had already been teaching the keepers that optimal animal learning occurs when information is delivered in finite bits, immediately marked, and followed up with reinforcement. She also wanted them to experience how the principles of clicker training hold true for any learner—including people.

Because of our reliance on verbal language, people need a bit of practice when transferring clicker training skill to other people. People teachers can quickly progress from using language to abusing it. Important points get buried in long lists of criteria and even longer explanations. Social responses divert concentration. We resort to nagging and escalate from there. Nagging doesn’t work on cougars and it doesn’t work on people.

The TAGteach workshop demonstrated to the Niabi staff that we can learn and teach each other with the same respectful process they use with their animal learners. Deliver information in finite bits, immediately mark an acquired behavior, and follow up with something that is reinforcing for the learner (usually success). I can’t think of a better gauge of an application’s power than its flexibility. This clicker ‘stuff’ can bend all the way around in a full circle.”
Tamarin

Male cotton-top tamarin targeting
toward empty syringe.

A little animal with a mighty personality: the cotton-top tamarin

After the TAGteach seminar, we knew we were on the right path advancing the people-end of learning. We also wanted to focus attention on our goal of low-stress handling and husbandry care for all of the animals.

The keepers have made huge progress with the cotton-top tamarins in the past two years. Both tamarins have been progressing wonderfully. They are learning to station and train for extended periods of time in a mixed-species exhibit, which is just spectacular. They live in the same habitat as very vocal conures, a sloth, and an iguana—quite the distraction training!

When we first began formal training, the tamarins would climb to the highest branches of their enclosure, alarm-calling with their amazing vocal repertoire when we entered their habitat. Our presence was stressful for them. We know that the tamarins are naturally arboreal (locomotion in trees with preferences of climbing to high elevations), so we used those natural tendencies and behaviors to increase their comfort level in our presence.

We decided to introduce a voluntary behavior that involves the tamarins eating medication from a small syringe. Since each tamarin was already fluent with target training, the plan was to teach them to touch their noses toward an empty syringe. Since the tamarins tend to climb higher on the branches when startled, we planned a slow introduction of the syringe to minimize it becoming aversive to the tamarins. The animals were always given the choice to move away from the syringe, in order to increase their comfort levels. If the tamarin did move away from the syringe, we would practice holding the syringe steady, clicking then reinforcing any small movement toward the syringe (looking toward, head turn, shift of body weight, movement toward the syringe).

Our initial criteria were:

Cotton-top tamarins learning to accept the syringe

  1. Place empty syringe in training pouch as a prop.
  2. Reach toward syringe. Click then reinforce tamarin holding stationing behavior.
  3. Move syringe from right to left hand. Click then reinforce tamarin holding stationing behavior.
  4. Practice shape recognition while holding the syringe behind the shape for slow acclimation. Slowly make the syringe more visible behind the shape. Click then reinforce targeting onto shape.
  5. Practice buoy targeting while holding the syringe up against the handle of the buoy target. Slowly approximate the syringe closer to the actual buoy. Click then reinforce targeting onto the buoy.
  6. Fade out shape recognition and buoy targeting when varying presentation of the empty syringe.
  7. Present syringe at a distance. Click then reinforce tamarin for looking at syringe while remaining at station.
  8. Cue other fluent behaviors in between approximation steps to keep from over-working syringe behavior. Keep the tamarin relaxed and below stress thresholds.
  9. Present empty syringe. Click then reinforce any body movement toward it.
  10. Present empty syringe. Click then reinforce nose target and mouth open toward it.

Our goals were slow and steady, and the tamarins rose to the occasion. Within days of beginning this new behavior, they began to lick the applesauce and yogurt mixture that we placed inside the syringe.

Reticulated giraffe update: breeding and husbandry successes

Imagine our surprise upon hearing the thrilling news that two of the giraffes were pregnant! When they each gave birth to beautiful calves, the social dynamics of the herd changed immediately. Not only were there two young calves sharing the habitats, but the male giraffe who sired both calves was displaying breeding behaviors even though he was not in the same habitat as the young calves at the time. There was significant regression in our training with the herd for a few months while the females focused on their young. The male was busy adjusting to his own hormonal fluctuations as well as to those within the herd.

Twigga and calf

Twiga with her
calf, Zuri.

What makes the giraffe births even more significant is that this herd is involved in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program. Learn more about the SSP.

When the time came to get back to husbandry training with the giraffe herd, we opted to move forward with voluntary weights and gating into the chute area for body exams. Integrating quick training sessions into weekly goals allowed for steady progress and increased comfort levels for the adult giraffes. It has been wonderful to see the young calves following their mothers through the chute toward their hay and grain rations.

This video highlights the slow introduction of a second person, Mandy, into giraffe training. We schedule pre-session meetings with all of the keepers involved to discuss and review each session plan. The meetings provide the opportunity for what are always excellent questions about the training plan and about how we can ensure that each training step moves forward smoothly.

Introducing a second keeper into voluntary
weight training with the giraffes

In the video, observe the primary keeper, Jessi, training at a high rate of reinforcement (marking then reinforcing quickly). Note the introduction of the ladder on the opposite side of the chute, a ladder the staff and veterinarians can use for easy access and visual exams for each giraffe. Jessi and Mandy are in constant communication to ensure that the giraffe remains as relaxed and comfortable as possible while the chute doors are opened and closed below the animal.

Post-session meetings are always held to discuss each training interaction, and to determine what modifications can be made. The goals are continued fluency with both the keepers and the giraffes.

A great year for renovations!

As Niabi Zoo received facility improvements, our training program was along for the ride. Integrating TAGteach into our training revisions enhanced our teaching plans in various ways. And every minute of it was fun!

Many thanks to Theresa McKeon for traveling to Niabi Zoo, and for her contributions to our training programs and this article. We are also very grateful to Eva Bertilsson for joining us and adding her expertise, traveling all the way from Sweden.

This has been an amazing year of progress at Niabi Zoo. We are delighted to share our journey, challenges, and successes with all of you!

About the author
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Laura Monaco Torelli, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and a member of the KPA and ClickerExpo faculties, is the Director of Training for Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago. She works in collaboration with veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi at Animal Behavior Partners, and is staff with Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. Since 1991, Laura has worked with and trained beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals, river otters, and penguins (at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago), primates, large cats, birds of prey, reticulated giraffes, Arctic foxes, horses, parrots, macaws, tree kangaroos, and red pandas (at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo), and, of course, dogs (just about everywhere). Laura has spoken at many professional conferences and has appeared on various broadcast media.

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