Meet Maggie, a member of our proactive giraffe training team! She shared her insight as to how zookeepers work cooperatively with Niabi’s giraffes to ensure the best daily care for the tallest members of our zoo family.
Niabi Zoo is the home of two gentle giants named Kenya and Twiga. Kenya is a 16-foot-tall, 2,300-pound male Reticulated Giraffe and Twiga is his slightly smaller Northern Giraffe friend at 13 feet tall and 1,300 pounds. They are by far the largest animals at the zoo and require a lot of special care. It’s part of my job to make sure these giraffes get the best care possible.
The giraffe operant conditioning or training team works hard to develop and execute training plans to ensure the giraffes have the choice to participate in these positive training experiences. Kenya and Twiga love carrots and apples, so that is what we use as their reinforcement. We train with Kenya and Twiga separately so they have one-on-one, focused time with their trainer at each session.
What is operant conditioning?
In technical terms, operant conditioning through positive reinforcement is a form of learning where certain species appropriate behaviors are modified or shaped by pairing it with a reward. A reward could be verbal cue such as “good boy,” or a favored food item from their daily diet, such as an apple chunk. When we want to build upon or expand a behavior, the animal receives a verbal or edible reward for presenting a requested behavior.
Operant conditioning is especially beneficial for proactive veterinary care. While exams may be a rather simple task to perform on a cooperative canine or feline pet at home or even a human, it is not the case for an animal as tall and sensitive as a giraffe. Through training and the development of trusted relationships between the giraffe and their zookeepers, we have been able to have a thorough veterinary exam with Kenya and Twiga in a low key, voluntary manner. Physical exams can now actually be an experience the giraffe can enjoy, since they get apples and carrots for participating!
What is a bridge?
Other components of training include a “bridge”, which is the distance between the request for a desired behavior and the actual act of the behavior which results in the reward. The bridge could be a whistle, clicker or hand signal to let the animal know they achieved the goal and will now receive a yummy edible reinforcement for a job well done.
What is proactive behavior?
One example of a proactive behavior includes a “touch” behavior. When we give the giraffe that specific verbal cue, they lean towards us and are comfortable with us touching all around their face, ears, ossicones, neck and body which allows us to conduct a comprehensive exam. This proactive behavior prepares the giraffe and the training team for situations such as routine physical exams, medical administration or even voluntary blood draws for health panels.
What are the benefits of training sessions?
Training sessions serve as a form of behavioral enrichment by stimulating their minds and creating new cognitive challenges for them. Having this kind of stimuli paired with other forms of enrichment throughout the day is great for both their psychological and physical welfare. Training is completely voluntary and is based on the trust that has been developed between the giraffe and our training team. It is all up to the animal whether they choose to participate or not!
Participating on the giraffe training team requires a lot of perseverance and patience but it’s very rewarding and serves such an important purpose. We work together as animal care professionals to support and provide everything our giraffes would need from us and we do so gladly for the tallest residents of the Niabi Zoo! Chat with Maggie and other keepers in person! We offer free Zookeeper Chats every day at noon and 3 p.m.