A day in the life of ZSL’s training and behaviour expert

by ZSL on

Jim Mackie training an emperor tamarin at ZSL London Zoo
Animal training and behaviour officer Jim Mackie

What do you do when an iguana needs daily physiotherapy? You call in the animal training and behaviour officer, that’s what.

So, when Susan, our rhinoceros iguana, hurt her toe, it was Jim Mackie who helped zookeepers train her to enter a special box where, with her foot emerging through the mesh, she could easily receive physio.

It’s precisely this – improving animals’ wellbeing – that is at the heart of Jim’s remarkable job: "At ZSL we use the most forward-thinking methods of looking after our animals," he says.

"For example, in the past an animal that needed relocating might have needed to be caught in a net. Now, we work with and train these animals so that they will voluntarily move into a crate to be moved to a new enclosure – accomplishing the same thing with the animal calm, comfortable and in control."

ZSL is at the forefront of zoos in terms of this kind of animal husbandry and veterinary training: "We use it for everything – health checks, physical exercise, play…" says Jim. "It’s based on an animal doing something voluntarily, rather than us needing to handle them."

What’s more, he adds, virtually any animal can benefit from training: "The science behind training a monkey and a fish is exactly the same," he says. "Behavioural science is a natural law that applies to all animals, from the largest elephant to the tiniest frog."

So how does it work? Simply put, animal training tends to involve a stimulus, a behaviour and a consequence: "We’ll provide a stimulus, such as a signal from keepers, and a consequence – the promise of something the animal likes, such as food – and the animal is responsible for the behaviour," Jim explains. "This kind of learning is called positive reinforcement training."


Zebras on target

All animals that keepers can’t get up close to for safety reasons, such as lions and tigers, will have recall training, where they will be rewarded for moving into a particular area when signalled to do so. And this kind of training can help many other animals, too:

"The otters at ZSL London Zoo have been trained to respond to a whistle, so that their keepers can call them indoors if needs be," says Jim. Although Jim insists he doesn’t have favourites, he does have a soft spot for animals he’s worked with on certain projects.

"I loved working with the zebras," he recalls. "They originally arrived at ZSL London Zoo in single-sex pairs – males Spot and Domino and females Kianga and Kabibi – who tended to stick together. But as I and fellow trainer Gemma Metcalfe worked with them, the social dynamic changed and they became comfortable as a group. They can now been seen interacting with each other as a herd, engaging in feeding and activities together. They’re confident around each other as well as around their keepers."

Jim also used target training – encouraging animals to approach a target, then touch it, and finally to stay still beside it – with the zebras. "Each zebra learned to associate its own different target with food, so they would go separately to their individual targets," explains Jim. "This can be useful if we want them to stand still so we can give them a vaccination, for example."

When our Asiatic lions were staying at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo while their new Land of the Lions enclosure was being created in London, Jim carried out lots of training and enrichment work with them alongside senior keeper Graeme Williamson and veterinary nurse Karla Berry: "Although our three female lions were born and bred at ZSL London Zoo and had been expertly trained by keepers as they were growing up, I hadn’t worked with them closely before," says Jim. "I really warmed to them, and the information we found out helped them settle into their new home at Land of the Lions."

Jim Mackie with Asiatic lioness

Enriching animals’ lives

"Enrichment’ refers to anything added to the animals’ environment to encourage natural behaviour such as decision-making or hunting – from building a platform to give the sloth bears a view, to changing the position of branches to vary our monkeys" movement patterns. For example, our male Sumatran tiger, Jae Jae, knows that if he hears the sound of a whistle, this indicates there will be a meaty reward on offer at the other end of Tiger Territory – encouraging him to actively run after his ‘prey’.

Jim is passionate about animals’ wellbeing. "People working in this area wouldn’t change jobs for anything – we’re all a bit nuts!" he laughs. And he’s been animal-mad since he was a boy. "I had lots of animals – lizards, amphibians, birds… Gerald Durrell was my hero! I trained my first animals when I was 10, with pet rats negotiating a maze. By 14, I was training birds of prey."

It was at the age of 24 that Jim, now 41, arrived at ZSL London Zoo. "I took on a full-time volunteer role, working with ungulates – hoofed animals – such as giraffes. After two months I got paid work flying birds of prey; my ideal job!"

The Zoo also brought romance: "I even met my wife, Jackie, on my first day – she was a keeper," says Jim. "She’s now curatorial officer and, among other things, is responsible for ensuring that all animals coming in and out of the Zoo have the best journey possible, even from across the world."

Jim, too, has been with ZSL ever since. His current role has grown to offer support across both Zoos: "Working with animals is a dream, but I love working with people, too, teaching something that will help an animal’s life," he says.

Jim keeps learning, too. Travelling to Gujarat in India and seeing Asiatic lions in their natural habitat, as part of ZSL’s collaborative work with our Indian conservation partners, enhanced his understanding of the species: ‘It was mind-blowing. Keepers seeing animals in their natural state helps them understand how to provide the best environment possible," he says.

Not that you can always plan for everything: "It’s important to have a detailed plan, but sometimes that plan goes out of the window," Jim laughs. "If a gorilla decides he wants to stay put in one area of his enclosure, you’re not always going to be able to change his mind! You need an agenda, but must follow the animal’s lead. A good trainer listens."

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