AFSME Local 602 - MSU Moorhead

Training Enriches Keepers’ Lives, Too

Julie Yarrington works with CC during the “Sparky” show at Como Zoo. The sea lion knows roughly 100 behaviors.

Visitors to the “Sparky” show at Como Zoo explode with laughter and applause when CC “dances” or performs some other trick on cue.

Yes, it’s crowd-pleasing, say zookeepers Becky Heitzman and Julie Yarrington. The Local 1842 members are part of the staff who help train the sea lion and other pinnipeds.

But what the public sees as “tricks” really are part of broader training programs designed not for entertainment, but for the animals’ well-being. And training is just one piece of enrichment regimens that are virtually zoo-wide at the Minnesota and Como zoos.

Enrichment can include giving animals toys, piping in sounds, or forcing them to forage for food. “Anything you can do to mentally stimulate them, to vary their day, is what enrichment is,” Yarrington says.

Even though zoos have switched from cages to larger, more realistic habitats, “you can’t build something in a zoo big enough to keep one of these animals from getting bored,” says Como zookeeper Peter Lee. “So you’ve got to engage their minds.”

Training encourages specific behavior without stressing animals out. In the old days, Lee says, keepers might manhandle animals, or squirt them with a hose, to get what they needed. “Now we ask them to do it voluntarily,” he says. Zoos do this through “positive reinforcement,” which, Lee explains, is zoo talk for “treats.”

In the old days, animals often were anesthetized for even simple medical exams. Now, some – like the sea lions – are trained to actually cooperate with such routine care as oral exams, eye exams, blood draws, x-rays, ultrasounds, and taking medication.

Some animals may learn only a few behaviors; others can learn dozens. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of dedication, but also a lot of fun,” says Como keeper Bree Dingmann.

“It’s a nice way to take care of them,” Heitzman says, “being able to interact with them and reward them for participating. It’s easier on them, it’s easier on the vets and it’s easier on us.”

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