It has to be Day 0, you see, because ClickerExpo doesn’t even properly start until tomorrow….
First off, KPACTPs had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Oakland Zoo and see some amazing training. We were asked not to share photos or video — not because of anything they needed to hide, because honestly we saw fantastic work and entirely humane by the highest of animal care standards — but because they’ve had instances of images being circulated with attached incorrect information, and once out there it’s darned hard to correct. I can respect that, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that the work with the bull elephant was some of the most impressive targeting work I have seen.
Impressive how, you ask? Well, using two target sticks (not traditional bull hooks, which encourage elephants to move away from pain, but target sticks, which encourage animals to place a body part confidently in place), the keeper positioned a 15,000-pound bull elephant head-on, laterally, and away from the gate, with head up, head down, ears out, trunk up, trunk down, and with feet in the air, feet on the steel bar, and opposite feet raised. It made me feel quite the slacker.
Most of this training is for safety and husbandry, of course, to give the elephants critical medical checks and care. The Oakland Zoo elephants travel between 4-6 miles per day (according to the GPS devices used to be sure they were getting adequate movement and exercise) and need regular foot care, for example. Also, we saw a great rehearsal for a TB test, in which saline is squirted up the trunk, the elephant raises its trunk to flush its sinuses, and then blows the solution into a plastic bag for collection. Much easier on the animals and keepers than blood or skin testing!
Tiki is a Reticulated Giraffe, a smaller female, who at the age of 13 was diagnosed with ringbone and other ailments, and it was predicted that she would have to be euthanized within 2 years.
Clicker training to the rescue! Tiki’s extensive training allowed for treatments and physical therapy which simply wouldn’t have been possible with traditional restraint and coercion. Tiki can offer each leg to be stretched or massaged, can position herself for various therapies, and can place a hoof precisely and gently enough to not crack an x-ray plate even though she cannot see her own feet. Cool, huh?! And oh, Tiki is now 25 and a significant contributor to the giraffe breeding program, and far from being euthanized.
Tiki is also the only giraffe at the zoo (and most others) to be worked outside of protected contact, which is why I can post a photo (with permission) like this:
This is a serious training accomplishment and implies an amazing amount of trust in this animal’s socialization and training. A lot of people don’t necessarily think of giraffes as dangerous, but they can cleave a lion’s skull with one kick, and they can kill one another during territory fights. Watch the video here to see just how perilous a ticked-off giraffe can be — and yes, that is a bloodied giraffe already on the ground belting a 3,500 pound or so giraffe right off its freakin’ feet.
Very impressive. So that’s one reason giraffes are generally worked behind fences.
The giraffe training showed some great trainer teamwork, too; timely reinforcement can be hard when your animal’s mouth is 20 feet from where you’re handling its feet! and asking the animal to bend down to take treats is very disruptive to any therapy going on with the foot. So the trainer working the feet marks the behavior, and a second trainer on a ladder delivers the food (bananas, carrots, greens, etc.). Also, it’s difficult for a trainer working at a giraffe’s fetlock to see the animal’s body language, so another trainer can stand well back and observe any early signs of stress or discomfort, to keep the encounter safe and enjoyable for everyone.
Fun fact: Giraffes have 5 horns.
Lemurs & More!
And here’s some adorable lemurs* doing matwork — see, I told you it was a universally useful behavior! The lemur on the left is learning to tolerate a (prop) microchip scanner being passed over and around her.
Note that these trainers and lemurs are in their wide open exhibit; the animals are free to walk away at any time, and they will be fed regardless. Why do they participate in training? Because it’s a fun way to get special treats, and nothing bad ever happens there. Pretty cool.
I also took a side trip to look in on the flying foxes. We didn’t see any training with these guys, but I love bats and wanted to check them out. My photos didn’t come out terribly well, but they are pretty neat creatures.
Then some friends and I wandered by the petting zoo area, where we schmoozed with some goats. We had seen 2 doing goat agility earlier, performing weave poles and tunnels and teeter totter climbs. This is standard training practice for new keepers, because “we feel that their first training experience shouldn’t be with something that can eat them.” Also, the goats clearly loved the game.
Back at the conference hotel, we gathered for the KPA cocktail reception, and several people congratulated me on the success of the book. I answered, quite honestly, that I have been jaw-droppingly flabbergasted at its reception. Later, as I carried up dinner (seared steak over a tasty mixed salad with avocado, yum) to eat while going over KPA homework, I talked to the husband on the phone.
Jon: “Are you hearing anything about the book?”
me: “Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on it today!”
Jon: “Mostly positive, I hope?”
me: /laughing/ “This is Clicker Expo! Nobody’s going to walk up and tell me what’s wrong with it!”
Because, you know, clicker trainers focus on the good stuff and ignore the bad stuff, so even a reader who didn’t like it would likely say, “Will you be talking more about [preferred topic] in future material? And I really enjoyed your anecdote in Chapter 3.” This is probably the safest place on the planet for an author’s ego.
But really, people have been very, very kind and generous about the book, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Tomorrow starts ClickerExpo proper, with 8 hours of training lectures and workshops. The schedule looks very fun and I’m still having trouble deciding which sessions to attend. We’ll find out in the morning!
*I admit, I cannot say the word “lemur” anymore without thinking of Artemis Fowl. And I’ve always liked lemurs, so that’s more often than one might think.