Training a 35 Pound Rodent? Oh My!

I’ve started volunteering at the Heard Museum with ORCA (a lab in UNT’s behavior analysis department that focuses on animal training).  One of the species we worked with on my first trip to the Heard was the Patagonian cavy, a 35 pound  South American rodent.

I’ll admit, before going out there, I really had no idea what a cavy was! The cavy is the fourth largest rodent in the world (the first three are capybaras, beavers and porcupine) and  resembles a cross between a long-legged rabbit and an underweight kangaroo.

Our first (and only) task for the day was to try and give the cavys a dose of medication. However, these cavys are skittish and jumpy as they still have not been properly socialized to humans. This is one of the bigger problems for zoos and other facilities that keep wild animals that are wary of humans. How do you go about medical procedures or even basic husbandry tasks with out frightening and stressing the animal?

Training is often a great way to overcome this problem. Using positive reinforcement, we can teach an animal to tolerate (or even enjoy) some of these tasks. For example, zoos teach apes to present their back end and hold still for shots, aquariums teach seals to open their mouths to have their teeth checked and many animals are taught to walk onto a scale to have their weight taken. If we use a reinforcer such as food, most animals can be taught to do (or put up with) a variety of tasks. Then the animal does not have to be darted, netted or forcefully captured, all which can be incredibly stressful.

The cavys we were working with adore hackberry leaves. So, we started out slowly, feeding them hackberry leaves when they came close enough to us. Once they calmed down a bit, we were able to give two of the cavys their medication on hackberry leaves. The third (and most skittish) was never brave enough to venture close enough, but we left the medicine with a staff member so they could try later when less people were around. Overall, though, we were fairly successful. With more positive human contact, it should become easier to work with the cavys and train them for simple behaviors, such as taking medicine.

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