Ashley Burdick’s hand was just inches from a leopard’s face Tuesday, but the keeper at Great Bend’s Brit Spaugh Zoo was not concerned.
Burdick was closer than the general public is allowed to go, but the metal enclosure still separated her from Toby, the zoo’s 12-year-old leopard. And Toby showed no sign of aggression, thanks to regular training he and other animals receive from the keepers. Even the alligators have learned some new behaviors.
Training helps their handlers safely provide care with less stress to the animal.
For example, giving an injection doesn’t require shooting the animal with a tranquilizer dart. It can be taught to stand at a certain area of its enclosure, presenting itself to receive the injection. The animal doesn’t know that is what it’s doing; it simply responds to conditioned behavior associated with rewards.
“You have to start by building a relationship with them so they can trust you,” Burdick said, as she demonstrated Toby’s training. She carried a wooden pointing stick with a tennis ball on one end as the pointer.
Wherever Burdick pointed the ball, Toby would follow. As she raised it above his head, the leopard stretched up, giving the keeper a good chance to check for signs of injury or illness.
Next she offered Toby a bit of meat as a reward, delivered using long metal tongs. Each time a treat was presented Burdick gave a short whistle blast. That sound becomes a bridge that the animal associates with the desired behavior, and a treat.
It’s easiest to train animals while they are young. The three young grizzly bears, less than 4 years old, will stand on their back legs and accept an injection. Eventually, they may even learn to offer their claws for a nail trim, without being sedated first, Burdick said.
That’s a bit much to ask of Max, the zoo’s geriatric grizzly. But even Max has learned to sit and present himself for an injection.
The zoo’s two alligators have also received training. “They’re pretty intelligent,” Burdick commented.
“Station training” has taught Alvin and Allister to move to separate assigned areas at feeding time. This allows the keeper to view them separately, noting how much food each consumes and looking them over for injuries.
When the time comes to catch the alligators and move them indoors for winter, the keepers won’t have to wade into the pond. The gators are trained to come out of the water and walk into a chute of their own accord.
Six arctic fox kits were born at the zoo in May. Three have already been transferred to other zoos, but the remaining three can be viewed on a video screen in the main building. These rowdy kids are also being trained, learning the command, “sit!”
One fox in particular is becoming familiar with new experiences, including being picked up by humans. It will become an education animal at its next home, coming into contact with unfamiliar humans on a regular basis as an animal ambassador.