The saying goes “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, what about old apes?
Rocket, 36, and Suzy, 39, came to the Pueblo Zoo in 2001 and are getting up there in ape years; but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to learn.
While training can be fun, amusing and rewarding, animal care staff are doing much more than teaching “tricks.” All animal training at the zoo has a purpose -- to teach behaviors that will help staff take good care of the animals. For example, teaching them to open their mouth so we can check teeth, present a hip for an injection, show their hands and feet so nails can be checked and trimmed. All training is voluntary and the animals can walk away if they choose.
In the case of Suzy and Rocket, when they were transferred to Pueblo from Nebraska, staff could not get near them. Keepers needed to get a closer look at them, so they began training and building trust.
Kim, their primary trainer, started simply leaving a training stick in the service area overnight to habituate them to it. The primates were so terrified of the stick that they pushed it away every night.
As they got used to it, Suzy became open to training first and would touch a training object in exchange for a raisin. Rocket would not engage at first and staff would give him a raisin just to keep him at a distance while they concentrated on Suzy. When they later shifted back to trying with Rocket again, he picked it right up as he had been watching Suzy all that time.
Each animal responds differently. Rocket has no problem hopping on the scale to get weighed, but like many women, Suzy is adamant about not revealing her weight. She also hates shots. She will present her hip, but moves away when a needle shows up. She is fine with being touched, so keepers are able to palpate her belly or touch her chest with a stethoscope.Rocket will not tolerate being touched, but he is great at opening his mouth so his teeth can be checked.
Training and enrichment are a very important part of animal care at the zoo and are incorporated into daily life in every area.
One may assume that primates would be good at training, but it might be less obvious that many other animals are trainable and intelligent. Keepers work with Goliath, our red-footed tortoise, to get him to open his mouth voluntarily to give him de-worming medication. Barnie, the sun bear, loves and responds to marshmallow fluff, Cool Whip, peanut butter and apple juice from a spray bottle.
Training serves other purposes, too, as it enriches animals’ daily lives as well as helps create a bond with keepers while they earn the animals’ trust.