Apple a Day

Does an Apple a Day Keep the Doctor Away?
by mammal keeper Michelle Farmerie and veterinary technician Kristine Trotta. 

The physical and psychological health and well being of the animals that live at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is of the upmost importance to both keepers and veterinary staff.  In many ways, providing the best care possible for Zoo animals starts by building on the same principles that you probably use, as you build relationships with your family, friends, coworkers and pets.  During a visit to the Zoo, have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder how they do that? How do they get the animals to come in and go out on exhibit or move them between buildings?  Do animals recognize the people that interact with them on a regular basis?  How do they know when an animal gets sick, hurt or pregnant and what do they do to take care of the animals when those things happen?” Well, in some cases, the answers are easier and more familiar than you may think and in other cases, you may be amazed at what it takes on the part of both the animals and the people but, what all the answers have in common are the same cornerstones of any good relationship: shared positive experiences, clear communication, respect, commitment and trust. 

Zoo animals can be very dangerous and will always be wild animals at heart, no matter how long they have been in captivity; however, the same principles of building good relationships apply, and in fact, you may be astounded at the complexity of behaviors that can be achieved using these building blocks as the foundation.  After reading this article you may even be curious about experimenting with these principles more in your own life, especially when you need to execute a complex task in combination with another person or a group.  So, to understand how these principles help to build behaviors let’s start at the beginning.


Please have a seat in the waiting room …

Optimal animal health and welfare are at the top of the list for everyone who works at the Zoo.  To us, “optimal” animal health means not only physical health but mental and emotional health too.  We use the term “Enrichment” to describe the things that we do to help keep animals active, healthy and engaged.  Our Zoo has an Enrichment Committee that focuses on discussing enrichment efforts throughout the Zoo and developing ways we can enhance animal enrichment and share what we do for the animals with you. 

Enrichment can be anything introduced into an animal’s environment to help promote species appropriate natural behaviors.  This can be anything from a novel object (new toy) or new smell to explore, to branches of trees or seasonal fruit to eat, to a puzzle feeder (an object to manipulate for food) or training to give animals cognitive problems to solve.  The last type of enrichment, training, is where this story really begins.

Training our zoo’s animals for voluntary veterinary procedures is a key part of environmental enrichment at our Zoo; in addition to providing mental stimulation to the animals through problem solving, training allows us to provide the animals with the best possible veterinary care, by gaining the animals’ voluntary cooperation in their own health care.  This allows us to not only respond faster and more accurately if an animal gets hurt or becomes sick, but it also allows proactive, or preventative, veterinary care so that we can avoid potential problems before they occur, prevent illnesses before they even happen, or more precisely monitor an ongoing condition. 


Take a moment to look over some information while you wait …

The type of training we use is based on operant principles and positive reinforcement or, the idea that any behavior followed by something perceived as positive increases the chance that the behavior will be repeated.  It doesn’t matter if you are a person or animal, this is true.  Give that a thought for a moment … If you do something and someone says “thank you”, smiles kindly or gives you an unexpected reward, like half their cookie or a “High 5”, the next time you get the same opportunity to interact with that person, aren’t you more likely to do whatever it was again? 

When working with animals, some type of clear communication, or signal, for “Yes, that’s it - thank you!” needs to be established so the animal knows that what they just did is going to get them something that they’re going to enjoy.  In Zoos and Aquariums, trainers often use a whistle, a clicker or even a point as the signal for the exact moment that an animal exhibits the behavior that the trainer is looking for.  As with most things in life, timing is everything!  This signal is called a “bridge” because it bridges the time between when the animal does the desired behavior and when the trainer can deliver the positive reinforcement (i.e., a piece of food, a toy, or praise). 

So, complex behaviors are “shaped” gradually through a series or “chain” of smaller approximations that result in the desired end behavior.  Each behavior is built on clear communication and trust (that good things are coming) and this creates a history of shared positive experiences between the animals and the people training them, whether they are their keepers or a member of the veterinary staff. 


The Doctor will see you now …

So, we start simple, we train the animals to recognize the bridge which goes something like “click”, treat … “click”, treat.  Once the animal learns the bridge, the sky’s the limit!  The next thing that is usually taught is “target” which means “touch a specific body part to a designated target”.  The body part could be anything - a nose, a fin or back and the target could range from a hand or a pole to the dot of a laser pointer.  Once an animal learns how to target then we can clearly communicate to them that we would like them to move from here to there, go inside a transport unit, or put a certain body part on particular thing or into a specific place.  The more we work with animals in this manner, the stronger the positive associations become and the more trust that is built. 

From there we can move on to “tactile desensitization” where an animal allows their trainer or veterinary staff to touch them with various items or safely manipulate some part of their body.  This can sometimes be a challenge, especially if the animal is a prey animal and instinctually avoids contact with other species.  Tactile desensitization requires a lot of team work and trust between all the humans and animals involved.  Think about it, would you let just anyone hold your hand?  There is a tremendous amount of trust and clear communication involved in agreeing to expose a vulnerable part of your body, go into a small space, turn your back on someone or allow someone to take you out of your familiar environment. 

Check out picture #X (Bob holding a shark out of water to get a weight).  Consider what the reverse of that would look like for a person … Would you trust someone enough to allow them to completely submerge you underwater and then return you to the surface before you ran out of air?  How many people in your life would you trust that much?  Would you trust your Doctor that much?  Gives you a whole different perspective, huh?


Open up and say ahhh …

When targeting, tactile desensitization and trust are all combined, much more complex behaviors can be built or “shaped”.  New objects can be introduced into an animal’s environment and they learn that the objects are safe and a calm, neutral response is positively reinforced.  Items like a tongue depressor, a stethoscope, an ultrasound machine or radiograph equipment can all be introduced to animals in positive ways.  Once an animal is comfortable with the equipment we can do things like check their mouth and teeth, obtain a weight, listen to their heart and lungs, perform an ultrasound or take x-rays - all with the animals’ voluntary cooperation. 


Take a deep breath and hold …

One of the behaviors that may seem simple at first glance but can sometimes be very difficult to train is “Hold”.  Teaching an animal to hold is the next step after training an initial behavior.  Since we are asking the animal to remain completely still with very little or no movement at all this can be a very complex thing to train – keep doing, exactly what you were doing.  This is an entirely new concept all unto itself.  If you have a dog or cat at home, trying to teach this idea may be an experience you have had yourself.  Is it easier to teach your dog to sit or stay?  Is it easier to get your goldfish to swim over to eat food you are shaking in their tank or to remain in the exact same spot and just wait for their food?  “Hold” is very important so that we can thoroughly examine a part of the body, get accurate measurements and vitals, perform an ultrasound, take an x-ray, or collect biological samples from an animal.  And this leads us to our next group of behaviors …


Just a little pinch …

Training intricate behaviors requires everything that we have already talked about to be put together with an extra large amount of established trust, respect and commitment.  Training animals for voluntary injection and blood collection requires a deep understanding of each animal’s comfort level.  Since training is completely voluntary on the part of the animal, their behavior tells the trainer whether they need to take smaller steps to reach the final behavior, go back to a simpler step, move on to the next step or increase the reward, as we all want to get paid more for a more complex task!  Respecting an animal’s personal pace and committing to “however long it takes” to get to the completed behavior combined with the established trust - that the end result is going to be a positive one, creates partnerships between the staff and the animals that ultimately, allow the animals to have the best care possible. 

Voluntary injections are extremely helpful when vaccines or injectable medications are needed as they may eliminate the need for anesthesia.  When anesthesia is needed, drugs can be administered with increased accuracy and with the animal’s voluntary cooperation through training.  Animals can calmly present an arm or leg for an injection, in a safe and relaxed position, where they can be closely monitored. 

Voluntary blood collection is equally helpful in providing optimal veterinary care because it allows the veterinary staff to receive valuable information about what is going on inside an animal’s body.  Blood values can tell veterinary staff important information including hormone levels used to identify breeding cycles, confirm pregnancy or the onset of labor, whether illness or infection is present, or how an animal’s organs such as the kidneys or liver are functioning.  All of these diagnostics assist the veterinary staff in getting an overall picture of an animal’s health and help to provide the best medical care available in the safest environment possible for the animal. 

Complex behaviors like voluntary injection and blood collection usually require some form of target, body part presentation, tactile desensitization, introduction of veterinary equipment, a solid and long hold, a commitment to teamwork between the animals and staff and an enormous amount of trust based on a long history of shared positive experiences – whew!


The results are in …                                                                                           

Keepers and veterinary staff have a committed relationship with the Zoo’s animals to achieve all these behaviors and more.  Veterinary staff make time in their daily schedules to dedicate to working with the animals and their keepers not only in formal training sessions but also through basic positive exchanges as a part of a normal day.  Just like you probably perceive the person who stops by just to say “Hi” or to see how you are doing differently than the person who only shows up or calls when they want something, we believe that the daily investments that all Zoo staff make in the health and wellness of the animals helps provide the animals with the finest care possible. 

Since strong foundational building blocks are what good relationships are made of, and good relationships are what successful partnerships are built upon and result in team endeavors where everyone wins, it’s no surprise that these same principles are also in the “prescription” for optimal animal health.  So, does an apple a day keep the doctor away?  Not in our Zoo, and that’s how we like it!