Since animals can’t talk, zoo veterinarians struggle to identify sources of illness in their charges before things get bad, and many basic screens require risky and difficult anesthetization. Zoos Victoria has found a way to get its animals to comply with basic health screenings – by training them to submit to many routine tests, including species never previously reported to be so obliging.
For most zoos performing blood tests on their big cats is such an operation they do it only rarely. Giving a lion a general anesthetic is a risk to its health and requires a large team of keepers and vets, but few people are game to draw blood from an awake lion. However, Werribee Open Range Zoo has found it is quite easy to train lions and leopards to slip their tails through a gap in their enclosure for a reward, first by getting them to associate having their tails touched by a stick with receiving food and working up from there.
This allows the vet to draw blood in complete safety. The Zoo’s Kelly Hobbs told IFLScience their lions will now offer their tails at a voice cue. “None of them show any sign they even feel the needle going in,” she said. “We assume there is some pain associated, but the reward apparently outweighs it.”
Female rhinoceroses will even put up with a rectal examination. Even though they can walk off at any time, Hobbs added, “They accept an invasive procedure because of the food and the relationship they have established with their keepers.”
Some animals not known for their intelligence have surprised the Werribee team with how well they have learned, once the right incentives were found. Koalas will happily place themselves on scales for particularly tasty leaves, and tortoises make the journey to the check-up station for lettuce or hibiscus flowers instead of needing to be carried.
Check out the meerkats, cheetahs, and potoroos showing off what they’ve learned.
“Every organism in the world has the capacity to learn,” Hobbs told IFLScience. “They only survive and adapt by learning, so we need to work out what the right motivation for an animal is.” However, she admits that large groups of animals, such as vervet monkeys, pose a challenge, with one disruptor keen to be the center of attention throwing off the whole group.
Despite this, the Zoo has made great strides with meerkat training. The notoriously speedy and playful creatures have been trained to stand on targets so the keepers can weigh them individually and make sure all are getting sufficient food. This marks a step up, Hobbs said, from having five meerkats jumble together on the scales while the flustered keeper tries to work out each one’s weight.
For most animals the incentive is food, but Hobbs noted some are more motivated by toys, or even “a box they can shred”. Whatever is used, the animals always have a choice to walk away if they deem the reward insufficient for whatever the keepers are doing to them.
The keeper’s faith in the approach is demonstrated by the fact they will check the teeth of notoriously grumpy hippos this way, and even pick bits of food out of them, although Hobbs stressed “We use a tools, we’re not putting our hands down the hippos throat.”
The training of non-domesticated animals has a bad reputation as a result of cruelty in circuses and wildlife parks, but Hobbs sees this very differently. Not only do the animals always have the choice not to participate, but the interactions with the keepers provide stimulation, exercise, and improve mental health.