Posts Tagged ‘pigs’

Internship Weeks 8-10: Belly rubs for pigs

by | September 18th, 2012

Intern Stephanie Lo

I scratch the belly of a Guinea Hog lying down on his side while zookeeper Liz trains him to accept a blood draw. The Oakland Zoo’s Veterinary Care Center wants a blood sample to determine if the animals’ new diet has the proper nutrients. To prepare the two Guinea Hogs for an actual blood draw, they first have to become tolerant about a person holding off their leg to find the vein. Due to their excellent sense of smell, Jason and Sara initially were nervous about the rubbing alcohol on their legs. Also, the zookeeper practiced touching their legs with a blunted needle to accustom them to the motions of a blood draw. Some of the zoo’s visitors who saw us practicing in the exhibit appeared surprised that the pigs were so tolerant and even asked if the Guinea Hogs were sedated. Nope, they weren’t. They simply enjoy their belly rubs and are willing to lie down on the grass.

Jason, one of the Guinea Hogs, laying down for belly rubs during a blood draw training session.

The less glamorous aspects of my internship are the routine cleaning and disinfecting of the animals’ exhibits and night houses. I completely gutted and disinfected the rabbits’ night house, and then I filled it would fresh shavings and grass hay. The other intern and I also scrubbed the pools in the pigs’ exhibit along with disinfecting their night house and service area.

Lemur popsicles consist of fruit frozen in cups of water. The popsicles are used as enrichment on warm days.

The past few days have been warm and sunny – the perfect opportunity for making popsicles for the lemurs! A lemur enrichment popsicle consists of fruit chucks (usually grapes, watermelon, strawberries and cantaloupe) frozen in ice.

Besides continuing to conduct lemur observations for an intern project, I attended an intern class about zoological population management. This class concludes the series of intern classes and explained how zoos determine which animals to breed and to whom to breed them. The class covered what is included in a stud book and general population management concepts, like avoidance of inbreeding. I learned the founding populations in a stud book are animals directly from the wild.

For lemur observations, we do a visual scan of the exhibit every two minutes and record the behavior of a certain lemur.

Another guideline was not to keep all animals of one species concentrated in one zoo. In case of an emergency, zoos would not want all the animals of a particular species to die.

Internship Week 4: Operant Conditioning

by | August 7th, 2012

Intern Stephanie Lo

I grip a small plastic box in the palm of my hand. I press down on its metal tab. Click! Immediately, a crisp snapping sound fills the air.


Many zoo keepers use clicker training to shape an animal's behavior.

As part of the Oakland Zoo intern program, we attend weekly classes and behind-the-scenes tours. This week’s class was an “Introduction to Operant Conditioning,” which highlighted how zoo keepers use clicker training to shape animal behavior. The crisp click is a trademark of clicker training, which I learned more about during the intern class.


Much like a college intro to psychology course, the class began by describing experiments done by Pavlov. Pavlov would ring a bell (conditioned stimulus) directly before giving food (unconditioned stimulus) to the dog, which caused the dog to salivate (unconditioned response). Eventually, the dogs would salivate when he rang the bell. We also learned about Throndike’s Law of Effect and how consequences influence how likely a behavior will be repeated. In addition, the class taught us how to distinguish between negative/positive reinforcement and negative/positive punishment. Although using punishment might produce faster results, clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement used to shape an animal’s behavior.


Joseph (left), one of the Nubian goats, participated in this week's intern class demonstration.

To practice the skills learned in the class, we walked out towards the goat and sheep yard to clicker train the goats with zoo keeper Liz. The click, which acts as a marker, is immediately followed by a food treat, which is the reinforcement. This way, the animals know the exact moment for which he or she is being rewarded. Using a technique called “shaping,” Liz worked with us to teach a goat to spin while standing on a short wooden table. First, she would reward the goat for a left head turn and then for a shift in body weight, building up towards a complete spin. Only the domestic animals, like goats, are trained to do tricks; the other zoo animals are only trained to do behaviors that help with animal husbandry tasks or veterinary needs. For example, some of the zoo animals are trained to hold still while getting x-ray, injections or blood drawn.


Photo credit: Lisa Clifton-Bumpass

During this week, three of the other interns and I got the opportunity to work with volunteer Lisa on pig training. After harnessing up the pigs, we practiced commands such as taking a step left, right, forward, backwards or standing still. It was extremely important to mark the behavior with the clicker before moving to drop the food reward. In addition, when feeding the reward, I placed it in a spot that reinforces the behavior. For instance, if I wanted a “back up,” I would not place the food reward so the pig had to take a step forward to eat it.

Zoo keeper Liz training one of the pigs to rest her head on a crate for eye cleaning.


The handler gave each of the commands to the pig through the harness, making sure the commands were clear. Sometimes we would use contrasting commands, like giving a “left step” cue after practicing several “right steps.” Through clicker training, many of the zoo animals do not need to be put under anesthesia or physically restrained for simple procedures, like giving vaccinations, trimming a goat’s hooves or cleaning a pig’s eyes.