Operant Conditioning as a Management Tool

Operant conditioning, as a method of training captive animals, is a practice increasingly recognised by zoological collections as a valuable addition to standard husbandry.

By encouraging natural, desirable behaviours through different forms of reinforcement, operant conditioning provides educational entertainment to our visitors, enrichment to the animals and ease of management to the staff working with them.

At ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, conditioning has been used by keeper staff for many years with an impressive diversity of species and equally impressive results.

Keepers at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo began the training of the chimps to allow closer examination of the animals whilst eliminating the need to dart them.

The animals are trained in pairs and receive their reward of grapes for each achieved behaviour and a banana at the culmination of the full training routine.

As each behaviour is completed the trainer will blow a whistle to bridge the time elapsed between the behaviour being completed and the reward being given.

This noise allows a trainer to inform the animal that the behaviour has been achieved and that a reward will be given. The association of the noise and the behaviour is known as the bridge and can be verbal, a whistle or commonly a clicker. The latter is often favoured due to the consistency in the sound that it makes.

Modifications have been made to the enclosure enabling the animals to push their hands through the mesh in order to receive their reward, whilst various tools and implements are included in the training making the association of otherwise negative objects pleasant.

For example a syringe with a cocktail stick is used to represent a needle. A keeper will offer the command ‘shoulder!’ and male chimp Zephyr leans in with his left shoulder.

The whistle is blown to signify that the behaviour is correct, he is touched on the arm with the ‘needle’, the whistle can be blown again and the reward is immediately given.

Other commands which are offered are ‘chest’ where the chest is pushed forward and the heart listened to through a stethoscope prior to reward, ‘eye’ where the chimp allows the corner of its eye to be touched with a pipette for receiving eye drops and ‘hand’, ‘foot’ and ‘nose’.

Perhaps the most obvious use of trained animals at ZSL London Zoo can be seen by visitors attending the ‘Animals in Action’ demonstrations in which natural behaviours are encouraged through conditioning.

The most obvious results can be seen with the coati that is trained to a target in order to demonstrate climbing and nest raiding behaviours, and the meerkats when looking out from a high vantage point to spot ‘danger’ and again when running into her box on cue.

These behaviours are conditioned using positive re-enforcement with favoured foods as the primary reward and provide improved care for the animals in the Living Collections of ZSL.