Andean Condor

The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is found in the Andes mountains in South America. It has the largest wingspan of any bird, averaging 3.2 metres or 10.5 feet. It only hatches one chick every other year, so the survival of this endangered bird relies on captive breeding programs.

Like all raptors, the condor has a really formidable beak, and this combined with its huge size make it a difficult animal to interact with. My task was to teach two of these birds to keep away from the keepers whilst their enclosure was being cleaned. Up until then, two or three people needed to go into the enclosure together – one to hose down and refill water containers and collect debris, and the other two to brandish brooms to keep the birds away from harassing them. As time progressed, the birds became more and more adept at ducking the brooms and grabbing a bit of clothing.

After discussion with the keepers, it was agreed that if two people could go into the enclosure together to clean up, the task would be much quicker and more efficient. It would also give the birds less opportunity to use their sense of humour to persecute the keepers. Firstly we taught the birds to touch a target stick when it was pushed through the wire of their enclosure. When they touched the end of the stick with their beak, they were rewarded with a click and treat. (they were not rewarded for grabbing the stick and wrenching it out of our grasp, which they initially thought was a really fun thing to do)

It did not take too long for the birds to realise that whenever the stick was pushed through the wire, there would be special treats available. The idea was that one person could target the birds to one corner of the enclosure and click and treat them, whilst the other two could clean up inside.

Andean condors are really awe inspiring birds – not just because of their immense size, but because of their intelligence and sense of humour. It was a privilege to have interacted with them.

Jacquie’s lion capture

Many people in the animal world get caught in strange situations. A friend of mine, Jacquie, is a veterinary nurse, and works for an organisation that gets called in from time to time to confiscate animals that are being kept illegally.

On one occasion her team was called out to collect a group of carnivores – two caracal and three lion. They were told that all the animals were young, being under seven months of age. So they packed the necessary crates, tranquilizing darts, etc. and headed off to do their thing. (this necessitating being accompanied by representation from both the police and conservation). On arriving at the venue, they quickly sedated the caracal (which turned out to be two males about 4 months old) and placed them in a crate. Then it was on to the enclosure where the lions were being kept. Unfortunately the information they had been given was somewhat inaccurate, in that the lions were all at least a year old, and nearly twice the size that the capture team were expecting. One look at them confirmed that they would never fit in to the crates that had bought along to contain them. So there was nothing else to do – first the lion needed to be darted, and then the two lionesses. This proved to be quite a challenge, as the team had to go into the enclosure housing all three lions in order to dart them. The male was darted whilst his fully conscious and very curious sisters were wandering around wondering what the heck was happening to their brother! As soon as they were all unconscious, the work began.

Struggling under their weight, the team carried the animals one by one to their truck and deposited them all together in the back. It was a bit of a tight fit!! Well it goes without saying that you can’t just drive around with three lions (albeit sedated) lolling about in the back of a truck, so there was nothing for it – my friend Jacquie had to climb in the back with them. She wedged herself into a corner, and tried to look as innocuous as possible.

They were almost back to base, when Jacquie noticed the male flick his ear. She called through to the veterinarian in the front of the truck to say the male would probably need a top-up of the sedative as she didn’t think he would stay fully unconscious for the drive home. By this stage they were driving through the centre of Pretoria along one of the main roads. All Jacquie could do was take off her jacket, which she used as a shield (visual barrier) between herself and the felines.

“Just cross this intersection and then pull over”, Jacquie called out to the driver, “then we can quickly give him another injection and be back home within the hour”. As she spoke, the lion sat up!! On hearing her voice, the veterinarian glanced in the rear view mirror, and to his horror discovered that his vision was completely blocked by the back view of a lion.

There was nothing anyone could do. It was an extremely busy intersection and the robot was red against them. Poor Jacquie had to sit stoically in the back of the truck with two sedated and one very confused and awake lion. She crouched in her corner, holding her (somewhat pathetic) jacket in front of her, hoping that if she kept nice and still, the lion wouldn’t notice her. After what seemed an age, the traffic light changed and they were able to cross the intersection and pull over to the side. The team rushed around to the back of the truck and unlocked it. The door was kept closed, with Jacquie wedged in her corner, so as to reduce any chance of the male getting out.

Passersby were slowing down and gaping at this amazing spectacle: a crazy lady sitting in the back of a truck with three lions, one of which was sitting up and trying to work out where he was. Jacquie says she saw lots of really large white eyes staring at the four of them all squashed up in the back of the truck.

The team managed to distract the lion long enough for him to be given another injection. He was injected through the window from the cabin, and they were on their way again. Nothing else untoward happened during the rest of the journey, and the animals were swiftly transferred in to the cages that had been prepared for them.

What did Jacquie think of all this? “Just another day at work: I do so love the adrenaline rush!!”

I was privileged to be able to visit these three lions whilst they were still in protective custody. Believe me, although they weren’t fully grown, they were all very large. There is no way on this earth that I would have got into the back of a truck with one unconscious lion, let alone three!!

Fast Facts
Height: 4 feet (1.2m) (males).
Length: 5-8 feet (1.5-2.4m) (males).
Weight 330-500 lbs (150-227 kg) (males).
In general, female lions are smaller than males.
Lifespan: 10-14 years.
Top speed: 50 mph (81 km/hr), for short distances

Training Tusker

When one is enthusiastic and has just learnt a new skill, one is always keen to put the new-found knowledge to the test. I am no exception to this phenomenon. I had been experimenting with clicker training for just a few years, when a wonderful opportunity presented itself.

My husband and I went on holiday to a nearby game farm. It was a great to sit back in the tranquillity and serenity of the African bush. Relaxing was the name of the game, and that’s just what we did – high speed relaxing for two days, three days, four days…… things were beginning to get a bit dull.

Quite a few of the animals in the reserve had become less fearful of humans, and would on occasion move in quite close to the chalets to see if they could scavenge some left overs. Others were just naturally curious and wandered up to see what was what. (sort of like who’s who in the zoo in reverse). We had a battalion of blue headed lizards which would sunbathe on the rocks just outside the kitchen door, as well as a posse of meerkats that would dance up and down from their burrows about 300 metres away. By far the most adventurous of the animals, though, were the warthogs. It was a family group of seven animals, led by a handsome male with very fine sharp tushes.

During our days of high speed relaxing, we lay back in our deck chairs and watched these entertaining beasts kneeling down and eating the sparse grass around the chalet. If they got a fright, their tails would go straight up in the air and they would run off at top speed. But then the non-stop relaxing got a bit tedious for me, so I decided to liven it up. And what better way to do that than to try out some of my new found training techniques?

Armed with a clicker and a half loaf of brown bread, I crept down the steps from the verandah and carefully approached the warthogs, being sure to keep upwind of them so that they’d be aware of my approach and not startle and run away. Well, in fact, most of them were horrified to see a human bearing down on them, and they stuck their tails in the air and ran off. But their intrepid leader remained. “Good oh”, thought I, “we’ll start with the leader, and then all the others will copy him”. I began by simply conditioning this large male (whom I named “Tusker”) to the click and treat. In other words, I threw small bits of bread in his direction and clicked when he ate them. We were getting along famously when Tusker suddenly decided it was time for his afternoon nap, and wandered off for a snooze in the shade of a tree. End of training session.

The next day Tusker and his family were back around our chalet, rooting in the dirt and generally doing warthog type things. As soon as I spotted them, I rushed inside and grabbed the clicker and some fruit. My approach was not so cautious this time, as the animals seemed to be much more relaxed with my appearance (probably all the banging and crashing preceding my arrival warned them that The Strange Clicking Human was on her way). This time Tusker was much more interactive, and definitely seemed to understand that the click meant that a treat would follow shortly. The rest of the group moved around nearby, but didn’t run away out of sight. Maybe this also contributed to Tusker being more relaxed.

Now that I had established a relationship with him, I felt that it was time to start training a behaviour. Having given it some thought the night before, I decided that it would be a good idea to teach him to back up. i.e. walk backwards away from me. This mainly because he was a good sized warthog with very well developed tusks. If he decided that I was endangering his family and decided to charge, he could easily break my legs or inflict a very nasty wound with his not-very-clean teeth. So getting him to move backwards away from me seemed a desirable behaviour.

In clicker training we train incrementally. So as soon as Tusker shifted his weight on to his back legs, I clicked and tossed him a treat. Then I only clicked and treated when he moved one of his feet back, focussing mainly on his back feet. Within about 5 minutes I had him moving backwards for about four paces. I decided to call it a day, and went inside, leaving him to think things over.

Our third training session took place that very same afternoon. Tusker was out there looking keen, so I shot outside and started conditioning him. He was quick to catch on – move backwards and you’ll get fed. True, his direction was a bit erratic and several times his well-rounded bottom hit a rock or tree, but by the end of another short session he could weave his way backwards for about nine paces.

Now I was really on a roll! A completely wild animal was choosing to come out of its comfort zone to interact with a stranger. Wow! The next day I decided to up the ante and put on a bit of pressure. In clicker training, we use a process called a variable schedule of reinforcement in order to solidify and strengthen a behaviour. What this meant is that now I wanted Tusker to take two or maybe five steps back before giving him a click and treat, whereas previously he’d been clicked for every single movement. With this sort of behaviour it is important that the handler stays in one spot, and doesn’t start walking towards the trainee. Otherwise the distance between the two never varies – the animal must be increasing the distance by moving away all the time. Good idea, hey? Stick to the rules of training and you can’t go wrong.

So I waited until Tusker had taken five steps back before clicking him and throwing him a chunk of apple. Then I asked for another three steps; then eight, then just one. This was going just great. Tusker was having a ball, I was being hugely reinforced by my success. So much so that I nipped inside and woke up my husband (who was still in high speed relaxing mode) and asked him to record this moment for prosperity. So he came out on to the verandah and took a photo of me backing Tusker into a particularly pointy rock. Duty done, husband drifted back inside to resume relaxing. (he never did see any reason for my excitement with animals).

Having successfully negotiated the pointy rock, I decided to extend trusty Tusker even further. As the rock was now partially obscuring him, I moved forward to check that his little trotters were still moving in the right direction. In doing so, I forgot to count his steps, and so made him walk backwards for quite some distance for no reward. Mistake!! Tusker got fed up and decided to come and demand his justly deserved treat.

I have never claimed to be particularly brave, but the sight of a fully grown male warthog trotting determinately towards my knees was enough to make me a downright coward. I dropped the remaining food and ran for it. Fortunately the food slowed him down a bit, and I managed to leap on to the verandah with my knees still intact.

And that was the end of my Training with Tusker.

I thought long and hard about it in the bath that night. Would Tusker now presume that everyone living in that chalet would feed him if he moved backwards? And would he charge them if they didn’t? We still had a few days of our holiday left, and I decided they would be put to good use if I de-programmed Tusker. So I kept a close eye on him. Every time he saw me, he’d move up close and then start going in to reverse. I ignored him (staying carefully out of reach). I then invited various folk over and asked them to move about to see what he would do with them. Nothing. It seemed that he really did understand that I was the trainer.

Any behaviour that isn’t reinforced will naturally extinguish itself, and I’m quite sure that within the next few days Tusker stopped trying to elicit treats by reversing. His bottom was probably a bit tender by then anyway. Maybe he saw it as a blessing in disguise – no more treats, but a bottom he could sit on without discomfort.

The Arrival of Oscar

In a previous tale on this site I explained how we came to get a Medium Sulpher Crested Cockatoo, which we named Noodle.

A few months ago, a friend down in Kwa Zulu Natal asked if we would be interested in having her sons’ Umbrella Cockatoo as well. Cockatoos are renowned for their ability to produce ear-splitting shrieks, and their neighbours had been complaining about Oscar’s vocal gymnastics. Of course we were only too happy to acquire another parrot, having had such fun with Noodle. So Oscar duly joined our ranks.

Now that we knew all about parrots (having owned exactly one for just on a year!!), we were certain that these two would hit it off and thoroughly enjoy each others’ company. At the time of Oscar’s arrival, Noodle was a 17 year old female and Oscar an 8 year old male. Parrot Paradise!!

Needless to say, we were hopelessly wrong – Noodle took one look at Oscar and decided that a dead Umbrella Cockatoo would be much nicer than a live one.

As soon as she saw him, Noodle marched over the grass, shot up the side of Oscar’s cage and tried to attack him. We were gobsmacked!! Our friendship made in heaven was doomed before it had even started!! At least we were smart enough to have Oscar enclosed so that Noodle (who is considerably the smaller of the two) was not able to make contact with him.

The stress of having Oscar within sight upset Noodle so much that she started self mutilating again. >sigh< We resolved this problem by putting her inside aviary back into another part of the house so that she could spend her nights alone and in peace. During the day the two birds were in separate aviaries close to each other.

As time passed things settled down and the birds came to tolerate each other fairly well. One of their favourite games now is to have screaming matches. A lot of fun for them, but rather unpleasant for us with sensitive hearing.

We were a bit concerned about the condition of Oscar’s feathers and general well being, so we arranged to take him up to Roodeplaat so that Dr Chris Kingsley could check him over. He also had a silver ring on his one leg which appeared to be too tight. When we arrived at the surgery, Chris commented on what a lovely girl Oscar was. We quickly assured him the Oscar was a boy bird. (this we had been told by the previous owners who had had him since a baby. Oscar also repeatedly stated “Oscar’s a Good Boy!” so we knew that he must be a male). Oscar was sedated to have his ring removed, and whilst under anaesthetic, Chris scoped him and proved for once and for all that Oscar was in fact a female. (I even got to see her ovaries through the scope). So Oscar became Oska overnight. Perhaps this explains why Noodle was so anti him/her originally – a bit of feminine jealousy at play?

Plucky the Parrot

Plucky the Parrot
Written by my mother, Ruth Quinton
(who insists on calling Noodle “Plucky” because the parrot used to self-mutilate)

There once was a parrot named Plucky
Who truly lived up to her name:
However her keepers abused her
She was really remarkably tame.

They trimmed back her feathers severely,
The left wing much more than her right:-
The result was this brave little birdie
Was restricted to circular flight.

If she spotted a favourite morsel
Some way away on the ground;
She’d rise in the air to fly over there
But could only go round and around!

Exhausted she’d land, but being determined
To savour the morsel she fancied –
She’d waddle along – she was slow, but so strong –
She eventually got there – she made it!!!

The moral must be – as I’m sure you’ll agree –
With tenacity, labour and greed: you don’t have to fly there
Just waddle along there, to your favourite spot for a feed.

Noodle’s Story

One day I got a call from the zoo asking whether I’d be interested in trying to rehabilitate a cockatoo. This bird was 14 years old and had been surrendered to the zoo by her owner, who just couldn’t handle her any more. For some reason this parrot had been mutilating herself for years, and her owner had reached the end of her tether. As the zoo had neither the time nor the resources to care for the bird, (she ate a huge hole in her chest which required some major stitching whilst in the zoo’s hospital wing), it was decided that it would be kindest to euthenase her. However, one of the medical staff knew of me and how I had been taking in orphaned and damaged birds since I was knee high to a cricket, and contacted me to see whether I was up to the challenge. I knew absolutely nothing about cockatoos, having never had one before, so of course I said Yes, I’d love to take on the bird.

With all the paper work duly completed, I was allowed to go and see my new pet for the first time. She is a Medium Sulpher Crested Cockatoo, a bird that originated in Indonesia. (as opposed to the Sulpher Crested and Lesser Sulpher Crested Cockatoos that come from Australia). What a bedraggled specimen she turned out to be!! She had eaten a nice big hole in her chest, which looked pretty gory. Her flight feathers on both wings had been hacked off by her previous owner, and her overall appearance was one of neglect and disinterest in life.

The first thing I had to do was to take her to a specialist avian veterinarian to have her wound stitched closed. In order to prevent her from being able to pull her stitches out, the veterinarian, Dr Chris Kingsley, encased her neck in a pool noodle(*1) strapped on with surgical bandage. This allowed her to eat and drink, but she couldn’t get her beak anywhere near her chest or stomach area. Unlike the Elizabethan collar, the noodle also allowed her full vision, which is a huge thing for animal that is predated upon. For weeks we had been playing around with names that we could call her, and nothing really sounded right. (My mother suggested “Plucky”). But now that her dreadful wound was closed and she had her neck encased in bandage, there was only one name for her – Noodle!!

I had been warned by everyone that she had an incredibly dangerous bite and that we must watch out for her taking a chunk out of us. With some trepidation I took my now drowsy parrot back home to the lovely inside aviary that I had bought for her. She was very subdued for the first few weeks. No doubt all the strange happenings had taken their toll. On top of that she was frightened of dogs, of which we had eleven. After a while she started to explore her new environment, and once she had come to terms with the room she was living in, she decided it was time to remove her noodle. Every day she assiduously chomped another bit of foam out from under the bandage. Of course the day came when she was once again able to reach her breastbone, and sure enough, she took some more flesh out of herself. So it was back to the vet for more stitches and another noodle. She did this a few times, and I have to tell you it is the most awful thing watching a bird tear its own flesh from its body, crying with pain as it does it. I was very traumatised with the whole experience, and eventually agreed to let the vet keep the bird for a few weeks. When I got her back, I felt much more relaxed, although for about six months we had to file her beak weekly and her nails fortnightly, so as the lessen the damage she could do to herself. This proved to be very traumatic for both parties, but at least it stopped the lacerations. I had purchased another aviary and had set it up alongside the other outdoor aviaries. As soon as the weather warmed up Noodle was carefully wrapped in a towel and carried outside every morning and let go in her own personal aviary. There she could see and interact with the other birds, but no-one could get to her. And every evening she was carried back to her inside aviary to sleep. Now she is confident enough to climb on to your hand or shoulder and can be carried about anywhere.

Before getting Noodle, I’d done some research in to cockatoos, as I needed to know a bit about their behavioural problems, characteristics, likes and dislikes, etc. I discovered that I was very lucky indeed that the bird I had been offered was a Medium Sulpher Crested Cockatoo. Apparently of all the cockatoos in the world, this one has the least offensive shriek. The noise that a Moloccun cockatoo makes, on the other hand, exceeds the decibel range of a 747 jumbo jet taking off!!!
The major contributors to behavioural problems in cockatoos include:

  • Offensive odours – particularly cigarette or tobacco smoke
  • Lack of adequate stimulation
  • Incorrect foodstuffs
  • Boredom and/or loneliness
  • Badly cut wings
  • Fear of something in the environment (e.g. a cat or dog)

Not knowing anything about her previous home, I decided to attack all fronts at once. No-one in the house smokes, so that solved problem number one. I bought lots of toys for her, which she regarded with horror and kept well away from. Perhaps she’d never been given a toy before? A parrots’ diet contains mainly fruit and vegetables, so her access to sunflower seed was abruptly curtailed. She now gets fruit and vegetables during the day and dry food (a propriety brand mix) at night. I refused to believe that she was vicious, and so began to handle her. Every day she comes in to the lounge on her own for some quality time. She runs along the floor and over the couches, burrows under jackets and generally makes a pest of herself.

Her wings were allowed to grow out completely (this against all advise from the specialists), and although she now can, she still lacks the confidence to fly. Occasionally she will get caught in an updraft and have to flap her wings to prevent a crash, but in the main she still walks around. She is now happy to jump from branch to branch or sofa to shoulder.

Noodle has been part of the family for over a year now. She still likes to peck little holes in herself, but these are not noticeable unless you part the feathers and look closely at her flesh. One of my medical friends likened this to the thumb sucking of children. She makes certain noises when she wants attention, and gets daily one-on-one time with a human, either inside the house or walking around the garden. She has become the most affectionate and loving pet anyone could wish for. I thank her daily for the pleasure she gives me, and for what she has taught me.

(*1) Pool Noodle – a spaghetti looking piece of foam used to keep children afloat in a pool.

Training Coco the Capuchin Monkey

Coco is a Capuchin monkey with a very inquisitive personality. She loves to open cupboards and throw the contents on to the floor. The fridge is especially enticing, as things break and squish once hurled out. Very rewarding indeed for a naughty little monkey, especially as this behaviour gets her “parents” to spend a lot of their time chasing around after her to try and prevent the chaos she causes.

Much-loved by her owners, Coco’s behaviour was getting a bit out of hand. She had free range of the house and garden most of the time, being confined only at night in a very spacious outdoor run. But when Coco opened a bedside drawer and helped herself to the tablets inside, it was agreed that the time had come to adopt a stricter stance. House rules needed to be laid down and adhered to.

So I went to visit Coco at her house near Bela Bela. Capuchins are renowned for their intelligence and easygoing personalities. In the olden days the organ grinders used them to attract the attention of the crowd by teaching them to wear clothes and dance. As a one-year old, Coco was feeling the need for a bit of direction in her life. Too much freedom can be quite stressful if you’re immature and given a free run to do what you like.

We decided firstly to teach Coco that actions have consequences. If she behaves in an appropriate manner, she will get a reward. If she misbehaves, she gets time out. To achieve all the goals set in just a few hours training, we decided to use both management techniques and clicker training. To stop her opening doors ad lib and helping herself to whatever she chose was simple – a gob of scrapbooking glue was placed in the centre of each handle. So when Coco grabbed the handle, she felt this sticky mess on her palm. Monkeys don’t like sticky messes, so she would let go. The fridge door was secured with a hasp and staple. I am writing this a couple of months after implementation, and to date Coco has not opened any cupboard doors with glue gob on them.

I like to teach animals to think, so we agreed on a behaviour that would benefit the family and be fun for the monkey. Golf practise being a favourite pastime of her owner, we decided it would be great if Coco could learn to pick up golf balls and place them in a container. So we conditioned her to the clicker (i.e. made her understand that when she heard the clicker she would get a treat) and then clicked and treated her for picking up golf balls. We didn’t get as far as having her place them in a container, but with diligent practise, I believe that the whole behavioural chain could be achieved within a week. Of course her activity and feeding regime had to be controlled in order to achieve this, and this proved to be our main stumbling block. Coco had been allowed to eat what she liked when she liked, and could run around wherever and whenever she pleased. It takes quite a serious mind change to put feeding and movement constraints on a cosseted and very cute pet.

Training sessions had to take place early in the morning before Coco had access to food. She resented being restrained in her sleeping quarters as she was used to being let out early in the morning. So we had conflict trying to get her to understand that she no longer called the shots, but had to do something in order to be let out to play. Of course she tried everything in her power to try to manipulate the situation. But eventually she started touching, and then occasionally picking up a golf ball. Her concentration span was fairly short, so we had to capture as many good behaviours as possible in a short space of time.

Having to think and problem solve was a new experience for her, so she was quite tired at the end of our session. So a quick nap on the sofa with mom and dad was her special reward. Notice the stuffed monkey that Coco carries around in her tail – a bit like Linus’ blanket.

As with all animals, training needs to be ongoing to be truly effective. Let’s hope that Coco finds a new dimension to life once she discovers how to please her owners. She has already been easier to have around the house because her cupboard-opening behaviours have ceased. Once she learns that she can do things that earn praise and admiration from her human family, she will be a much happier and more biddable monkey to have around.

Komodo Dragon

One of the animals I was asked to work with at the Zoo was a Komodo Dragon. What an honour!! At the time there was only one in the country. The Dragon had been a present from Indonesia to the then President Mandela.

Komodo dragons are the world’s heaviest lizards and can grow to over 3 metres and weight almost 100kgs. They have an incredible sense of smell, using their forked tongue to track down prey (often carrion) for up to 8 kilometres away.

The enclosure that the dragon was being kept in comprised two display areas, and I was asked to train the reptile to move between these two areas on cue. This was necessary so that the door between the two outside enclosures could be closed and the keeper could clean one of the areas in safety. I was asked to get the animal to move between the two outside enclosures within 5 minutes. Komodo dragons move incredibly fast, and have very sharp serrated teeth with which they cut out chunks of their prey. Their mouths are also host to nasty bacteria, so if the Komodo isn’t able to kill its prey immediately, the bacteria in its saliva often kills its prey over the next few days: a prolonged and very painful death. So it was necessary to little to no contact with this animal during the training process.

A challenge to be sure!! How was I going to get this animal to move around whilst standing outside its armour plated glass enclosure? After prolonged consultation with the curator and keepers, it was agreed that the easiest, safest and quickest option would be to use a target stick. This was quickly procured, and a large rag tied to one end. The method we chose to adopt was as follows: because of the animals’ prodigious sense of smell, we decided to stimulate it by dragging its food through one of the display enclosures. So the inter-leading door was opened, and the target stick waggled in the opening. As soon as the dragon spotted the stick and started moving towards it, the keeper would nip back into the night room and secure himself in there. Of course initially the dragon was not moving forward to get to the target stick, but rather to investigate the interesting new smell. In a very short space of time the dragon learnt that the sight of the target meant that on the other side of its outside enclosure would be a scent trail leading to food. Within a few sessions we had our lizard responding to the lure within 2 seconds and zooming in to the other enclosure within 30 seconds of the target being shown to it. Great!!

As I had been given 6 months to get this behaviour on cue, and had achieved it within a week, I asked if there was anything else they’d like their dragon to do. Jokingly they answered that they would like to be able to cut its toenails and take DNA samples for sexing. “OK” I responded, “let’s do it!”

The first thing we did was teach the dragon to go into the night room. This was done so that it learnt to follow the target whenever it was shown, (for a reward), and to go in to whatever area we dictated. We got this behaviour in one session. We locked it in the night room for a short while before targeting it back outside again.

Since the animal was being so cooperative, I asked whether they would like to weigh it to get a measure on its growth over time. They were delighted with the idea. So trusty Pieter the keeper rushed off and got a nice big plank. This was placed on the ground just outside the inter-leading door. Once again we used the target stick and reward to get the dragon to move over the plank in both directions. Once that was OK, the plank was elevated on to a number of bricks, so that the dragon had to climb up on to it. It took a few sessions for our Komodo to be confident about this behaviour.

The day of reckoning arrived!! The veterinary section lent us their scale and we prepared to weigh the animal. We locked it in the one outside area whilst we set up the scale and plank. The measuring device was craftily hidden in the night room. When everyone was in place, the inter-leading door was opened, the target waved and our Komodo casually wandered across, climbed on to the plank and stood there for a good two minutes. (Our lizard weighed in at 35.5 kgs). In fact it seemed to so enjoy the fuss it was causing that we had some difficulty targeting it back in to the other enclosure so that we could dismantle the equipment! So behaviour number 3 was a wrap.

As the Zoo still had the crate that the dragon was flown out in, I thought it would be a good idea to make use of it for the nail cutting and DNA testing. Using the same principle that had been working so well, we taught the dragon to target (walk towards) the stick when it was held on the far side of its wooden crate. By now the lizard was too big to completely fit in the crate, with about ½ metre of its tail remaining outside. But within a fairly short time it was happy to go in and be fed on cue. Once I was convinced that the dragon was happy walking in to the crate, and had learnt how to back out of it, the medical team were called in.

The dragon behaved perfectly. It walked in to the crate on cue, and stayed there whilst the veterinarian cut off fragments of its nails and tissue aspirations which were then sent for DNA testing. The result – a female!!

Komodo dragons have a very interesting survival technique. Probably because they evolved on islands subjected to tropical storms, the females have developed the amazing ability to reproduce on their own. If a mature female (around 5 years old) has lived alone for some years, she is capable of fertilising herself and producing offspring. And all these babies will be males. Because Komodo dragons have a very limited gene pool, it is very important to ensure that they are not related (and allowed to breed) if kept together. It turned out that our female had compatible breeding genes to a male in England. So she was sent to England, and that country in turn sent out two of the males that were asexually produced.

Although it is very difficult to form an emotional tie with a reptile such as a Komodo dragon, I do hope the girl I had the privilege of working with is happy in her new home in England. Hopefully in time a new line of Komodo dragons will be born to her, thereby helping to ensure the survival of the species.

OKAPI

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!!

GALLIVANTING with a GIRAFFE

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.