Internship Week 2: Candy wrappers, clicker training and ring-tailed lemurs
by | July 26th, 2012

Intern Stephanie Lo

After becoming familiar with the daily routine during my first week, String 7 Zookeeper Liz allowed me and the other interns to do many of the animal feedings and exhibit cleanings on our own.  In addition to the daily pellets, the meals of the domestic pigs and rabbits consist of specific amounts of fresh produce and greens.

The Oakland Zoo‘s Veterinary Care Center, the commissary and the string’s zookeeper work together to ensure each zoo animal has an appropriate diet. Sometimes, I help prepare the diets of the lemurs, pigs and rabbits by selecting produce from the commissary’s walk-in refrigerator and cutting up the correct amounts for each animal. Although slicing pieces of sweet potato or cantaloupe isn’t a physically demanding portion of my job, it is extremely important to pay attention to detail because each animal has unique nutritional needs. There is even a scale located in the Children’s Zoo kitchen to help us measure out grams, if necessary.

Blue-eyed lemurs Eugene and Anthony interacting with enrichment. The "candy wrappers" are made from newspapers filled with their food.

Each primate night house contains a calendar to mark each day’s enrichment. One of the lemur enrichments I did this week was configure pieces of newspaper into “candy wrappers” that contained their meal. The other interns and I wrapped chunks of cut produce into sheets of newspaper. At first, the lemurs did not approach the newspapers, but then a Ring Tailed Lemur picked one up and began opening it. Other forms of enrichment include piles of straw with scents mixed in and wooden bird toys hung with fruit in them. Besides stimulating their senses, the daily enrichment encourages the lemurs to forage for their food, much like they would in their natural environment.

Ring Tailed Lemur foraging for food in the enrichment item.

One of the most interesting opportunities this week was watching Liz do clicker training with the Ring Tailed Lemurs. During the individual training sessions, some of the lemurs acted more relaxed than others, allowing the zookeeper to trailer the training to the lemur. The goal of much of the training revolves around veterinary and husbandry purposes, such as having the lemur sit quietly on a mat while the keeper holds a stethoscope to its chest.  The zookeeper also worked on having the lemur sit still while waving a pretend chip scanner over its back, which could be done to identify an unknown or escaped lemur. One of the new commands Liz began was “stand.” She used a small target ball on the end of the stick, and she first rewarded the lemurs for showing interest in the target and then worked her way up to having them touch it with their hands. It was amazing to be able to observe how quickly some of the lemurs caught onto new commands and how sensitive they were to the trainer’s body posture.

Read more about what I have learned regarding operant conditioning and the use of clicker training during my upcoming Week 4 blog post.

One of the Ring Tailed Lemurs eating food from an enrichment item. The plastic container has holes for the produce to fall out.

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