Author Archive

Learning how to train animals…

by | March 10th, 2014
Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

I recently had the privilege of attending a workshop on Contemporary Animal Training and Management hosted by

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Natural Encounters, Inc. in Florida.  It was an amazing educational experience, and I honestly can’t stop thinking about it.

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

The 5 day workshop followed a format that balanced both theoretical presentations and practical hands-on training sessions. Experienced animal trainers and animal behavior scientists were on hand to share their expertise and answer our endless list of questions.  I got the opportunity to network with dozens of other zoo professionals, dog trainers, and companion parrot owners.  The challenge after any workshop, conference, or seminar that I participate in is applying my new or improved skills with the animals that I work with at the Oakland Zoo.  Fortunately, this challenge is the reason I love my job!

You may be wondering why we bother with animal training, who we train, or how we train.  Training has been described as the ultimate form of enrichment.  The application of enrichment seeks to stimulate our animals both physically and mentally while also empowering them to make their own choices and control their environments.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a “wordy” description of the concept.  Bottom line is the animal gets to exercise their brain and often their body by doing something…anything really.  At the Oakland Zoo, we do all kinds of training with all kinds of animals.  Leonard, our male African lion, is trained to place his paw on an x-ray plate and hold still for x-rays.  Tiki, one of our Reticulated giraffe, is trained to present her feet for hoof trimmings and acupuncture treatments. Torako, one of our tigers, is trained to position her tail through a hatch so that Zookeepers can safely draw blood from a vein in her tail.  The flock of Red-bellied Parrots in our Savannah Aviary exhibit are trained to perch on particular stations so that Zookeepers can examine them daily.

You may be noticing a theme.  Many of our training goals seek to empower the animal to willingly and eagerly participate in their own husbandry and medical care.  All of these animals have the choice to walk away in the middle of a training session if they want.  Ultimately, this allows the animal AND the Zookeeper to function in a low-stress, highly reinforcing tandem.  The animal is having fun, and the Zookeeper is having fun!

Thanks for reading!  I’ll leave you with some of my favorite pictures from the Contemporary Animal Training and Management workshop.

Our Beautiful Macaws and Why They Need Enrichment

by | September 6th, 2013

IMG_4963Oakland Zoo’s Animal Care, Conservation, and Research team has the privilege and challenge of providing our animal residents with an enriching, well-balanced life and advocating for the conservation of their wild counterparts.

The zoo’s flock of Blue and Gold Macaws recently got a healthy dose of extra enrichment.  The ACCR team combed through a handful of creative ideas to give the Macaw Exhibit a new, fresh look.  In addition to replacing some of the wood perching that had suffered significant wear-and-tear from years of the Macaws using them to keep their beaks sharp and strong, the team also added two twenty foot sections of rope.  The rope is a novel perching surface in this exhibit.  It will not only give our Blue and Gold Macaws something new and fun to play with, but it will also help keep their little feet healthy.  With some resourceful alterations to the ends of the rope, the Keepers are able to move the ropes to different angles whenever they please.  This way the birds get a bit of a “different look” with their perching without the keepers having to make any permanent rearrangements.

IMG_4968

The fun doesn’t stop there though!  The team recycled some cargo netting and stretched it out between some perching to support brand new bird baths.  Just like the native songbirds that like to bathe in the little puddles in your yard, Macaws and other Parrots love to keep themselves clean too.

But one may wonder…why?  Why do our Blue and Gold Macaws deserve this special treatment?

Macaws are smart.  Macaws are REALLY smart and curious.  It is this very characteristic that makes them coveted as pets.  Ironically, it is also what makes them inappropriate as a pet.  Meeting the behavioral and enrichment needs of these incredibly smart birds is difficult. 2013_0831 P B on new perches 2 A behaviorally unhealthy bird may become aggressive, destructive, or even sick.

Add to this the fact that Blue and Gold Macaws can live for over 60 years, and the bird often becomes an unbearable burden even for well-intentioned owners.  In fact, the four Blue and Gold Macaws in the Zoo’s collection came from such circumstances.  The Keepers responsible for the daily care of our Macaws are tasked with keeping them behaviorally and medically sound.  Having flexible and varied perching options will help immensely with this goal.

Next time you visit the zoo, be sure to swing by our Macaw Exhibit.  Check out the innovative rope perching and bird baths and see if you can spot all the other enrichment that may be hanging around the exhibit.  But most importantly, make sure you walk away with a better appreciation for our conservation message – while Blue and Gold Macaws are a breathtaking, charismatic bird, the needs of the individual birds and the sustainability of the entire species are best accomplished by discouraging their role in the pet trade.