Last week, we told you all about our new and exciting Gorilla Treeway. This week, we want to highlight our favorite part of the trail: the training platform!
The training platform is a portion of the trail that was designed to allow us to access the gorillas while they're out in the trail and where we can ask them to participate in training sessions. The majority of our training sessions take place in off-exhibit holding spaces, but this new platform allows the guests to watch as we train and to ask questions while our gorillas showcase the repertoire of behaviors that they know, something that we've never been able to do before.
Gorillas are extremely intelligent, and all five of our gorillas enjoy the benefits that come from training, like one-on-one keeper time, mental stimulation, and of course, extra snacks and treats. We know that they enjoy it because training sessions are always voluntary. They can come over and participate if they want to, but if they're not in the mood or preoccupied with something else, that's their prerogative. We only use positive reinforcement, so it's always a rewarding experience for the gorillas.
It's important to note that we don't train our animals to perform tricks. Rather, the behaviors we teach them are vital to their daily husbandry and veterinary care. The most common behavior that we train is body presentation. This is where we ask each gorilla to present all of their different body parts (e.g. foot, hand, back, ear, or chest). Gorillas are pretty rough and tumble, and they play hard, so sometimes they get cuts on them. When this happens, we can ask them to show us almost any part on their body to get a closer look. This way, we can assess the cut, bite mark or scratch to see whether they need veterinary intervention like antibiotics and so we can monitor it to make sure it's healing properly.
When it's not healing to the vets satisfaction (sometimes the gorillas will pick at an old wound, preventing it from healing quickly), we can ask them to put their cut to the mesh so we can apply a topical cream or ointment to aid in the healing process. Training body presentation is extremely helpful for us keepers since we work with the gorillas through protected contact, meaning we don't enter into an exhibit with our gorillas and manage them through mesh instead. If you happen to catch a training session in our new trail, we will most likely be working on maintaining body presentation behaviors that they already know. It's pretty awesome to see a gorilla standing up or opening their mouth on cue.
Another behavior you may see us asking of them is to present their shoulder for an injection. Our apes voluntarily receive the flu shot, measles vaccine and tetanus shot. This means that our gorillas voluntarily sit there and accept a needle poke from us! How awesome is that? We always like to say that you can't force a 450 lb. gorilla to do anything it doesn't want to, and injection training is a perfect example of that. Because the benefit of the training session outweighs the prick of the needle, all of our gorillas will sit there and even come back to get poked again. Another amazing behavior that our gorillas are trained to do is to press their chest or belly against the mesh and hold it there for several minutes at a time so that we can perform both cardiac and abdominal ultrasounds.
Gorillas are naturally apprehensive of new and novel things, so desensitization is probably the simplest but most important training we do with the gorillas. Desensitization simply means that we get them used to something that is novel to them or that they are wary of. It could be a new space, a new toy or perch, a new keeper, or vet or even a new gorilla. By using positive reinforcement around the new object or encouraging them to touch, smell or explore it, we are desensitizing them to that object.
The trail itself is something that we are currently working on desensitizing the gorillas to. Some gorillas (like Honi and Kira) have a more adventurous personality and took to the trail right away. Others, like Motuba, are going to require a little more training to become desensitized to it. We are also currently working on training Honi to allow Kira to come over to hand-feed from her keepers while they're both up in the trail. Because Honi is the dominant female, she appears to have taken some ownership over the trail. The girls are already trained to sit there while we close doors to separate them on the training platform, but we also like the option of being able to work cooperatively with the animals while they sit near each other without any closed doors between them. This training involves a couple of us keepers encouraging Kira to come over and hand-feed from us while rewarding Honi for allowing Kira to come over.
So the next time you're at the zoo and watching us do a training session on the new training platform, see if you can figure out what it is that we're training. Maybe you can even impress your family and friends with your insight into the various kinds of training we're working on with our gorillas!
By Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper,
and Samantha Nestor, Primate Keeper