Zookeepers believe in positive reinforcement. We want our animals to look forward to training sessions as much as we do. First you establish a bridge. Sometimes it’s a clicker (used in dog training), or in the case of the Colobus monkeys, it’s a whistle. The animal learns that when they hear the whistle, they did the behavior right and will be given a reward. For a reward it’s usually a small food item (but not enough that they won't  eat their regular meals), and usually it's an item not normally found in their daily diets (to make it a treat!). This way they are eager to work for it. For the Colobus monkeys we use grapes, nuts and mulberry leaves.


Sometimes animals come to us already involved in a training program at their former Zoo. In the case of Mac, our male Colobus monkey, he was already trained in many behaviors. I was able to contact his previous zoo and they sent me pages of information about what he was trained to do, the cues (hand gestures and words) that were used to get him to do the behaviors, and pictures of what the correct behavior looked like. All the hard work of training had been done for us! We just had to continue working with him and maintain the sharpness of those behaviors. An example of the importance of training: Mac had an injury on his chin earlier this summer. We were able to keep a close eye on the wound as he was trained to lift his chin and let us examine it.

Becca, the female Colobus monkey, was not involved in a training program at her previous institution. So with her, we had to start from scratch. It didn’t help that she was skittish and really didn’t want to interact with us. However, she really likes her grapes, nuts and mulberry leaves so we started the training process by just having her come up to the mesh of her enclosure to take treats from our hands. This was to establish trust. It took quite a bit of time (months), but she is now comfortable with myself and the other keepers,  Bill and Keith. We slowly introduced behaviors and she will now put her hands and feet up to the mesh, touch a target (tennis ball on a stick), and stand up. Every new behavior she learns is very exciting for us. In fact, we are pretty excited that she will come up to us, do a training session and not run away.

On August 7, 2013, Becca had a baby!  Since she was a first time mom, we just let them be as we didn’t want to disturb her. On August 16th we attempted our first training session since the birth of the baby. While she was very nervous and protective of her baby, Becca did come forward to the mesh of the exhibit to work. She carried her baby with her, so I was able to get a great close up look at the infant! I felt that all the work we had done to establish trust with her had truly paid off!



About Julie Katt

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Julie has been a Zookeeper at John Ball Zoo since 1998.  She received a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources at Oregon State University.  

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