June 27, 2011

Training is the Spice of Life!

By Animal Caretaker Lauren Moulis

You may have heard rumors that Squam Lakes Natural Science Center’s Animal Care staff members are training the animals here. Well, those rumors are true! For several years we have used a training and enrichment program which enables us to increase the health and well-being of our animals.

The training uses positive reinforcement to reward all correct behaviors with something the animals love, such as food. You can see the effects of the training yourself if you visit during our trail season (May 1 to November 1). An animal care staff member demonstrates training of our two resident mountain lions at 3 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday in July and August. We also highlight our training and animal enrichment program on Come Play the Wild Animal Way Day; it will be held this year on July 13.

Behind the scenes training is done with the rest of our animals too, for the benefit of the overall physical and mental health of each animal. For instance, asking for an “up” behavior allows the trainer to inspect areas ordinarily not seen, such as the abdomen. The same is true for an open mouth behavior or paw presentation. If you have ever seen the mountain lion demonstration you may have noticed that some behaviors are more of a “practice drill.” The idea is to make an animal familiar and comfortable with a touch from an object somewhere on the body as practice for the possibility that we may need to inject medication for an illness. Allowing an animal care staff member to regularly observe that the animals are in normal health lessens the chance of a serious injury going unseen requiring subsequent visits from the veterinarian. Similarly there are behaviors, such as asking a coyote to jump or howl, which don’t play a part in the physical health of the animal, but do provide mental stimulation and, in some cases, a fun interaction with the trainer. A recent training breakthrough we are excited about is teaching the exhibit animals to stand still on a scale in order to get accurate weights. This allows us to more closely monitor their diets and health.

Another wonderful benefit of training is being able to eliminate possible surgeries. Any surgery may be risky, especially when it requires anesthesia. The risk is higher as animals age. Recently our female bobcat, due to old age, has not been able to groom herself well, causing mats to develop in the fur on her back. Previously this situation might have required anesthesia to remove the mats. At her age this procedure would be risky, so we tried positive reinforcement training first and have been able to successfully brush many of the mats out instead of risking surgery.

Training is wonderful for staff and animals alike here at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. Stay tuned to see how we progress with new and fun behaviors to create a little spice of life for our animals.

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