I am a self-professed animal nerd. Pick a species any species and I can usually find something I love about it. I guess that's why I love going to the zoo or aquarium (those that are accredited and focus on conservation, mind you). I have a habit of staying at one exhibit for hours, just watching, without thinking twice about it. So when Kev and I spent Christmas week 2009 at Disney World, it wasn't a shock to anyone who knew me that we spent 2 of our 6 days at the Animal Kingdom - and it wasn't because of that awesome Everest roller coaster they have there.
One of those mornings we took Disney's "backstage safari," which allowed us access to the animal habitats, zoo keepers, researchers, vets, nutritionists and other non-public areas that most visitors never get to see. They only allow 12 guests per day on the tour and it does cost extra, but it is totally worth it for animal nerds like myself.
Now the folks at Disney tell you up front that you probably won't see many animals on the backstage tour, because they prefer their animals to be "on stage" where the guests can see them and not behind the scenes. But the morning of our tour was very cold for Florida - 42 degrees - and the trainers and zoo keepers kept many of the animals behind to do some exercises since most weren't in any hurry to get out of bed that day anyway. Jackpot!
We spent time at the white rhino barn and spoke with the head trainer and keeper. She introduced us to Samson (Sammy for short), a 40 year old white rhino who is her favorite due to his playful nature even at his ripe old age (you can see him on the right getting in the way of our safari vehicle "on stage" later on that day). After answering about 100 questions from our tour group - which consisted of a handful of other animal dorks like myself, a vet tech, a researcher from Costa Rica, and a vet from Mexico - Sammy's trainer showed us how and why they train these huge animals.
You may be thinking Sammy was going to get his giant rhino hiney on a pedestal and spin around or something spectacular, but you'd be thinking wrong. All of the animal trainers/keepers are required to work daily with every animal to teach them to help assist with their own vet care. And how do they do that - clicker training!
They teach the animals how to tolerate sticks from needles by poking them with a paper clip. All are trained to open their mouths on cue so that their teeth can be cleaned and inspected without it being a big deal. The lesser primates are taught to present their arms to receive shots, while the larger gorillas understand language better and understand the word "yes," which also helps to improve their vocabulary. The large animals, elephants included, are taught how to walk onto the scale and wait until they are released. The big cats are taught to tolerate their tails being handled, which I can only imagine is a bit challenging if my "little" cat is anything like a lion. All animals, great and small, are placed in the situations for blood draws or possible moving on a regular basis to desensitize them.
I watched Sammy show us how he could open his mouth on cue and expect a treat (hay) for his good work. Sammy showed us how he could touch a pool buoy when asked, something that helps when moving the animals, as keepers/trainers are not allowed inside the barriers with any of their animals for safety reasons. With the rhinos, elephants and giraffes they have found that whistles work better than clicks. They think it is the pitch of the sound that they respond to vs the dull click.
At Rafiki's Conservation Station, I watched as a trainer for the domesticated hoofed stock showed kids how they could teach a sheep to recycle. It was a cute trick where the sheep put a water bottle into the bin, but of course it was done with a clicker. I pulled the trainer aside once he was done with his demo and he told me that the bottle is something the sheep are naturally interested in due to the sound it makes. All of their domesticated hoofed stock - goats, sheep, donkeys and llamas that are in the petting area are all clicker trained. He said that the goats are the smartest and catch on so quickly that they can't use them for the demos because they usually learn something on the first or second try.
So for all of you out there (me included sometimes) who get totally frustrated with your greyhound not being willing to do something, think about Sammy the rhino. If all 3800 lbs of him can figure out how to open his mouth on cue for a bite of hay and a whistle, I think my 54 lb greyhound can figure out how to sit, pick up something, or even open her mouth on cue for her teeth to be brushed. Maybe Seka should have been on that backstage tour to get a lesson from Sammy.
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