Blog: Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

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Using Animal Training and the Human-Animal Bond to Enhance Animal Welfare at Brookfield Zoo

A big part of the lives of zoo animals includes interacting with the humans that take care of them. Human-animal interactions can be valuable tools that foster good welfare in zoo animals by allowing staff to monitor animal health and to provide animals with food, exercise, and stimulation. 

Animal care staff at Habitat Africa! The Savannah ask three reticulated giraffes to touch a target. These target poles serve as symbols that ask animals to come to a particular location or move into a particular position. For example, further in the blog, you will see Mithra the giraffe positioning her head for an X-ray. How did she learn this position? Through a target pole and lots of treats!

Interacting with humans is not something most animals encounter regularly in the wild. Therefore, a process is used by zoo staff to work with animals in a positive way that encourages the animals to participate voluntarily in interactions with their keepers. When done right, this allows the animal to cooperate in its own care.

This process is called “positive reinforcement training”, also known as “positive operant conditioning” for you psychology enthusiasts out there. What this means is that animals are reinforced with highly pleasurable items when they successfully engage in a requested behavior. For a relatable example, if your neighbor gave you a chocolate chip cookie or a $20 bill every time you washed your dishes, you’d probably have the most spic-n-span kitchen on the whole block! Over time, trainers can gradually “shape” behaviors by rewarding animals as they learn along the way.

Training as a Tool for Preventative Health Care
Animals and people alike have healthier and more comfortable lives if they have good dental health. Here at Brookfield Zoo, animal care staff teach many species of animals to present their mouths for dental exams and even for a good old-fashioned tooth-brushing. So floss your teeth, kids! If our rhinoceroses can do it, surely you can… 

Cassandra Kutilek, animal care staff at Pachyderm House asks Layla, our black rhinoceros to open her mouth for a tooth cleaning using a water pick. Beth Miller, animal care staff at Seven Seas, uses a similar gesture to ask a sea lion to open wide for a tooth brushing.

Many of our orangutans get their teeth cleaned up to three times a week and are comfortable enough with this behavior that animal care staff can use an electric toothbrush to do the job.

Look at Kekasih, one of our younger orangutans, showing off those shiners (minus one baby tooth) at Tropic World! According to animal care staff, each orangutan has its own preferred reward: Ben loves prune juice, while Sophia likes raisin-bran cereal soaked in water, and they all seem to enjoy a spoonful of applesauce or a squirt of sugar-free Kool-Aid. What’s your favorite treat?

Here’s another toothy example: animal care staff at Habitat Africa! The Savannah trained Mithra, our oldest giraffe here at Brookfield, to pose for a dental X-ray. Through this behavior, our veterinarians are able to monitor her root and enamel health to ensure her mouth is healthy, happy, and pain-free (no-one, whether hoofed, furred, or finned, likes cavities).

On the left, you can see Mithra lay her head on a target board and the X-ray machine on her right. If you look really closely, you can see a green blob at the bottom of the photo – that’s actually her reward used for positive reinforcement as giraffes love to eat greens. On the right, is an actual X-ray from her dental exam – if you look towards the back of her mouth, you can see her very large molars that are exceptional tools for grinding vegetable matter.

Training as a Tool to Monitor Animal Wellbeing
A similar behavior was recently trained in our male polar bear, Hudson, for research.  Hudson was asked to chew on an absorbent swab, so that CZS animal welfare expert, Dr. Lance Miller, could collect his saliva to monitor health biomarkers. The biomarkers measured in this study are indicators of animal welfare. These indicators inform us how to ensure they are residing in an environment that allows them to thrive.

Check out the video below where you can watch Hudson participating in research and being rewarded with delicious meat kabobs.

Training as Animal Enrichment
Interacting with animal care staff in training sessions affords learning experiences and cognitive challenges for zoo animals and can be an important component in enrichment programs. There is accumulating scientific evidence that training and human interaction can be enriching for some species. And, at Brookfield Zoo, we know that it is particularly important to tailor our training programs to each unique species, because we know that some animals can be introverts, too! For example, gregarious species, such as bottlenose dolphins, have frequent training sessions and interactions with animal care staff throughout the day. However, Brookfield Zoo also takes care of species that are shy and secretive by nature, such as clouded leopards. Animal care staff at Brookfield Zoo work with our clouded leopards to establish a trusted relationship with them, however, staff also ensure that these elusive cats have plenty of time to explore their habitat in quiet solitude.

Spree, Noelani and Allison, three teenage bottlenose dolohins at Seven Seas, are frequently in training sessions with animal care staff throughout the day and these bubbly sisters often solicit the attention of animal care staff even outside of sessions! Come say hi to them the next time you visit – they may blow you a bubble in the windows at Underwater Viewing. Dongwa, a male clouded leopard, likes to explore the higher ground in his exhibit, and is extremely skilled at disappearing into the shadows.  Next time you visit the Zoo, try to find Dongwa in his habitat at Clouded Leopard Rainforest – most likely, this secretive cat will be watching you long before you see him!

Training for Safety
As you can see, positive reinforcement training can establish extraordinary levels of trust between zoo animals and their keepers. Once trust is established, it opens up the opportunity for animals to be calm participants in their own exceptional care.

This is important not just for the physical and psychological health of the animals, but it can also become critical to protect the animals in emergencies. For example, how do zoos protect their animals when a natural disaster hits, such as a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake? All our animal habitats here at Brookfield have evacuation and emergency training. One of the most important behaviors that can be trained with zoo animals is “Recall”. Recall behavior involves training the animals to respond to a clear, unique signal, by stopping whatever they are doing, then moving as fast as they can to a specified location.
Positive Reinforcement Training and YOU

Look closely and you will see a 3-month old baby Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) lounging on the back of its mother, “Tulum” (named after Mayan ruins on the coast of the Caribbean in Mexico). Animal care staff, Vince Sodaro, feeds Tulum mashed avocado and applesauce mixed with a healthy daily dose of vitamins. Vince has built up enough trust with Tulum and the other anteaters to be able to touch and be in close contact with them. This has been critically important for a number of reasons. For one, when Tulum was pregnant with her first infant, Vince was able to help the veterinarians perform an ultrasound on Tulum by positioning her where they needed. This way, the veterinarians could ensure that Tulum and her growing baby were healthy, without the procedure being stressful. Following the birth of each of her infants, Vince and other keepers, were able to touch and feed Tulum while another staff would gently “peel” her infants off to weight them and have the vets do wellness checks. Even without food to offer, Tulum, and her mate “Lupito”, seem to like being scratched behind their ears and on their throats by people that they trust.

If you have a pet at home, consider taking lessons from a trainer so that you can learn positive reinforcement methods. You can try out what you’ve learned and report back to me on our Facebook page about your experience – I’d love to hear about it!
Dr. Melinda Conners
Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare


Posted: 4/10/2017 10:38:03 AM by

Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

Read the latest exciting stories about how our experts are advancing the science of “animal-directed” care through innovative programs at Brookfield Zoo and global field efforts.


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