What a thrill to be asked to train an Okapi!! These animals hail from North Africa and are shy creatures of the forest. Their coats have lovely white stripes on them to help break up their outline so that they are not so easily visible to predators.
The okapi is the only living relative of the giraffe. Like giraffes, okapis have very large, upright ears, which catch even slight sounds, helping them to avoid trouble. They also have a long, dark prehensile tongue similar to the giraffe.
Okapis are hard to find in the wild. Their natural habitat is the Ituri forest, a dense rain forest in central Africa. Okapis are very wary, and their highly developed hearing alerts them to run when they hear humans in the distance. In fact, while natives of the Ituri Forest knew of okapis and would occasionally catch one in their pit traps, scientists did not know of the animals existence until 1900.
There were two male adults that I was asked to teach to walk on to a scale to be weighed. This because one of the easiest ways to determine if any animal is unwell is if it loses weight. Easier said than done!! After having a look at their (rather wonderful) night enclosure, and some prolonged discussion with the curator and keepers, we agreed upon a training schedule.
The scale was of a kind that could have a board of the right dimensions for that animal placed on it. Well of course our Okapi were not going to just leap up on to the plank and make our job easy for us. They were VERY suspicious of the whole idea of being weighed, and were quite certain that we were up to no good.
Initially the keepers located what they felt was a suitable plank and we placed this on the floor across the door between the night room and their outside enclosure. The plan was to reward the animals each time they passed over the plank. Of course they tried every trick in the book to avoid stepping on it. Prodigious leaps and sideways approaches with little hops to get over that frightening piece of wood went on for about a week. Then the boys settled down and walked over it as if it had never been a problem.
The plank was then elevated on to bricks, so that it was slightly off the ground, and the animals were encouraged to move over it. Only one of them was comfortable about trying this. The other would follow his friend, but with great trepidation.
The next step was to place the plank on top of the scale and get them to walk over it. We decided to work with Shumba, the more stable of the two initially, with his friend shut into a nearby night room where he could watch the action.
We clicked and treated a lot to get our chosen lad to move towards the scale, which we had cannily placed between two of the night rooms. Being an Okapi, he found it a bit difficult to work out how to lift his foot up to step on the scale! (ah-hum!! – not the most mentally active of animals). It took quite some time of swinging his head from side to side to get him to step up high enough (read about 8 cms) to get on to the plank.
Wonderful!! We were nearly there. I thought if we could get him to gain confidence by walking backwards and forwards over the plank between the two night rooms, we would then be able to get him to station (stand still) on it so that the scale had a chance to register a figure. But this was not to be!
Once Shumba had worked out how to lift his front right hoof on to the plank, his other feet seemed to follow quite naturally. Then – DISASTER!! His full weight proved too much for the plank, which promptly broke in two.
As you might have gathered by now, Okapis are not renowned for their intelligence, so our friend stood there for a few moments wondering what had happened to the floor beneath him. A minor earthquake? A sinking of the substrate? Or was it a dastardly plot to attack Okapis? Once he’d worked out that he could move, he shot off the plank like a rocket. And then had a little temper tantrum to show us what he thought of the whole business. We had people manning the doors into the corridor, so were able to get out of the way until he got his temper under control. But of course he was then very nervous of going anywhere near the scale again.
Whilst he hovered around watching us anxiously, the keepers scurried around to try and find another more robust piece of wood. This was eventually found and we placed it underneath the broken plank. (to have just used the new one would have thrown our Okapi into a fit of nerves – don’t forget it had taken him two weeks to get him used to walking on the first plank).
We clicked and treated any movement towards the new structure, even if it was just a head swing. We then put food on the new structure and clicked and treated him for eating it. By this time the keepers and other watchers wanted to call it a day – they had other duties to perform and they couldn’t see any way of enticing the somewhat shocked animal back over this awful abyss. But I insisted it could be done, and took over all the handling myself, getting everyone else to move out in to the corridor and keep as quiet as possible.
As I’m sure you all know by now, the clicker trainers mantra is “you can teach any animal to do anything it is mentally and physically capable of doing”. My Okapi had just proved that he could walk over the plank one way. So I didn’t see any problem in getting him back! Grabbing a nice big branch of mulberry leaves, I started to click and treat him for moving his head back and forth over the new assembly. Within about 10 minutes he tentatively put a foot up over the plank. Jackpot!! He removed his foot instantly!! (wicked and manipulative Okapi that he was).
But I was absolutely determined to get the behaviour, and to get it within the next 20 minutes. So we started again. Sure enough he realised that I was adamant that he was going over it, and with a resigned attitude he walked up onto the scale and stood there for a few minutes until we were certain that the reading was accurate. (he weighed 249,1kgs). I then encouraged him to climb down off the scale and gave him the rest of the mulberry leaves as a well earned reward.
My job was done. Within 3 training sessions I had successfully weighed an Okapi. This proved to the curator and keepers that it could be done. All that remained was for them to get the second Okapi to do the same thing. This should not prove a problem, as the second Okapi appeared happy to follow Shumba across the plank when it was on the floor. And all thanks once again to the little, highly effective clicker!!