Clicker training gorillas to “trade”

Last spring, I spent a very fun day at the Dallas Zoo. My professor and advisor, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, spoke at a weekly lunch lecture series the zoo has for their staff, sharing information about some of his research on poisoned cues. I wrote most of this post then, but never got around to completely finishing and editing it. But here it is now, so I hope you enjoy this training story.

I have a friend and classmate who was working full time as a keeper at the zoo. We got to spend some time exploring the zoo with her and learning about the zoo’s newest exhibits, as well as some of the training that goes on at the zoo.

I grew up in Dallas, so I’ve been visiting the Dallas Zoo for years. I’ve been impressed by how much the Dallas Zoo has done over the past years to improve the care and welfare of its animals. Modern zoos, such as the Dallas Zoo, strive to provide appropriate habitats where animals have the space and the ability to engage in natural types of behavior.

The Dallas Zoo’s Savanna Exhibit

For instance, about two years ago, the Dallas Zoo opened a new savanna exhibit. Part of the savanna is a multi-acre habitat where zebras, giraffes, impalas, and ostriches all roam together. Animals living in large, multi-species habitats have both more space and a more interesting environment. We saw an ostrich at one point go running straight into the herd of impala, sending them running off, kicking up their heels. Several of the zebras looked on, mildly interested.

A giraffe interacts with a hanging log

Parts of the savanna are also designed to encourage natural behaviors. In the wild, elephants will rub up against trees to knock down branches or fruits. The elephant exhibit has several huge fake trees that are on sliders. The keepers can place food items on top of these tree-like structures. When an elephant rubs against the tree, food sometimes falls down.

Most zoos these days have well developed training programs based on operant conditioning, clicker training and positive reinforcement. This isn’t about silly circus tricks. Instead, zookeepers train animals to cooperate with routine care and medical care, greatly improving the animal’s health while at the same time reducing stress. Check out this post for more information about why training is so important for zoo animals.

My zookeeper friend told me a bit about a very cool behavior that many zoos teach their gorillas and other primates. The behavior is a “trade” cue. So, if the gorilla (or other animal) has a toy or other item, the keeper can ask the animal to “trade” and the animal will give up the item in exchange for another interesting item.

Of course, when training a behavior like this, a trainer starts out by making it really, really easy for the animal. The animal gets to play with something not very interesting, such as a plain block of plastic, and gets to trade it for something the animal really likes, such as a favorite toy or food treat. The trainer then gradually builds the behavior to include a large variety of items. At the same time, the trainer begins using items that are of higher and higher value to the animal.

Now, why train something like this? Primates are big, dangerous and intelligent. Keepers have no way to bribe or force them to do something they don’t want to do. If the animal gained possession of something he wasn’t allowed to have, this “trade” behavior would give the keepers a reliable and safe way to ask for the item to be returned. For example, if as a camera or child’s toy was dropped into the enclosure, the keeper could use the “trade” cue to ask the animal to give up the item in exchange for a different item.

Good training is all about planning and preparation. Smart trainers try to anticipate new environments or situations that their animals might encounter, especially situations that could be potentially harmful, stressful, or dangerous for the animal. Then, a good trainer figures out how to prepare for this situation or similar situations and teaches behaviors than could come in handy.

Police horse trainers are great at this—they expose their horses to all sorts of crazy, weird and wild situations since they have no idea what the horses could encounter when they are out patrolling on the streets. Preparation training can even including seemingly small things. For instance, traditionally, riders mount their horses from the left side. However, many smart trail riders teach horses to allow a rider to mount from the right or the left side, that way if the rider gets in a pinch when out on a trail, he or she can get back on from either side.

With our pet horses, dogs and other animals, a lot of the training we do is strictly for pleasure and fun. Still, we can and should be thinking about behaviors that will make our animal’s lives more pleasant, healthier and safer, as well as training behaviors that will help prepare us and our animals for the future.

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