Keeper Diary - August 2007
The sloth bears that we house at London Zoo - Colombo, Ursula and Lanka - must have yearly vaccinations to protect them against diseases such as leptospirosis. Because of the potential danger of these animals, this has previously always been done using blow darts as it is not safe to go in with the bears.
However, I have been training the bears using operant conditioning so that they present their arm to the mesh and can therefore, be hand injected rather than darted. Operant conditioning works by capturing the desired behaviour in the animal and giving them a reward immediately to reinforce it. The use of a clicker device helps to bridge the gap between the action and the reward so that the animal is certain what they did that warranted the reward.
The rewards I have been using for the bears are giant mealworms, which to a human look very unappetising, but to our bears they are a real favourite. The best of the bears so far is Colombo who will allow me to prod him with a dummy syringe for more than required to administer a vaccination. Ursula is slightly behind and Lanka who has had a much less settled life, (originally from a Sri Lankan zoo) is getting better, but needs a lot of work as she is more focused on getting a scratch than food!
My section is called Mammals South and it has a number of animals which are operantly trained now - including the gorillas, lions and many of the monkey species. Training allows keeping and veterinary staff to examine animals and administer medicines with the least amount of stress as the animal does not need sedation and does not need to be caught up.