On another occasion I was asked to teach a Giraffe to walk through a crush. This crush is about 20 metres long and 10 metres high. The keepers who were responsible for caring for this animal assured me it couldn’t be done. The giraffe had been under their care from some 13 years, and in all that time no-one had been able to get him to go through the crush on cue. Yet within the hour allocated for his first training session, Gerry walked through that crush with me not once by five times. I was delighted.
All training needs to be ongoing. Gerry needed to be confident of walking through the crush in case he ever needed to be examined or medicated. There are sliding doors at various intervals along the crush where the giraffe can be contained without being able to kick out and injure itself. An elevated platform runs along the outside of part of the crush so that the veterinarian can work at back height to the giraffe, maybe to take a blood sample or give an injection.
Of course there were hiccups along the way. My job was primarily to assess whether the animals could be taught the required behaviours. Then I needed to convince the keepers that clicker training does really work, and hand over the training to them. Usually from the very first session the keeper would be involved in the training process. Most of the time there are secure barriers between the animals and keepers. However, sometimes it is necessary to get in to the enclosures with the animals. This was the case with Gerry the giraffe, as he initially needed to be lured down the chute which meant that we had to be in front of him all the time.
Luring is a method commonly used in clicker training. It helps the animal to understand in a relatively short period of time what it required of it. The trick is to stop luring as soon as possible. With Gerry we knew that he had a passion for carrots. So, armed with a bunch of carrots we would click and treat him for eating them. Once he had mastered the Art of Carrot Eating (which took him about 10 seconds flat), he was happy to follow wherever the carrots led. Which was down the chute with us and the carrots in front of him. This was a potentially dangerous manoeuvre, as there were several of us in the chute at any one time – one to hold the carrots or browse out in an enticing manner, one to click (me initially until the keepers got the hang of the importance of timing) and one to ensure a never ending supply of carrots. The chute is relatively narrow, being just wide enough to allow a mature giraffe to fit through snugly. Two people could not walk comfortably alongside each other. We also had to be very carefully synchronized, as if our giraffe decided to speed up, we had to get out of the chute before him without tripping over each other. We had some near escapes!
Safety always being paramount, there were never less than three of us working with him at any one time. Sometimes we had overseas students and veterinarians asking if they could come and watch and our ranks would swell to twenty or more. They would then be let into the enclosure in batches to experience what it’s like to have a giraffe pounding down a crush after your bunch of carrots. On one occasion one of the keepers got cornered by the giraffe. This was an extremely dangerous situation, as although the keeper had known and worked with him for upwards of twelve years, the animal was still capable (and quite willing) to kick and wound mortally. Giraffes can kick both forwards and sideways equally easily as backwards. Fortunately because of our rule of always having a number of folk working with the animal at one time, I was able to run around the other side of the crush and entice the giraffe away before anyone got hurt.