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This article will explain how a five year-old California condor residing at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens was trained to participate in a free-flight bird show. This young bird, which is aptly named “Hope”, is currently the only California Condor to be featured in any bird show, making her an important ambassador to her species. While this short editorial is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that was involved in her training, it is an abridged overview of the strategy that has been successful thus far.
In June 2014, Hope was hatched at The Peregrine Fund in Idaho and was destined to join the wild flock of condors at the Grand Canyon. As a fledgling however, she sustained a wing injury that left her unable to maintain flight for any reasonable distance making survival in the wild impossible. At the LA Zoo’s Angela Collier World of Birds show, Hope now has the important job of inspiring and educating zoo guests regarding the plight of endangered animals and the power of wildlife conservation. Hope’s routine in the show consists of several short flights to show off the majesty of these large birds and their impressive wingspan. Her behaviors include jumping up to a large stone archway, gliding low over the audience to the grass on stage, walking close to the edge of the stage for an extended close-up, jumping up to a tall pole and walking off stage back to her nearby enclosure.
This condor, which is one of just over 500 currently in existence, was trained using a rewards based system of operant conditioning, shaping and back-chaining. In order to safely enter her enclosure or allow her to exit for sessions, one of the first things she was taught was to “station” on the tall perch inside of her enclosure. At first, this was done by luring her up to the perch with food (usually mice, bird of prey diet, rats, quail, rabbit or horse meat) from the outside of her enclosure and rewarding her when she remained on the perch. Luring with food was phased out when she would readily hop up to her perch, and she was rewarded for staying on it as the door to her enclosure was opened. Eventually, opening the door to her enclosure (either to enter, feed her or let her out for training) became reinforcing enough to maintain this behavior.
Later, Hope was introduced to an auditory conditioned reinforcer. A metal whistle was sounded followed by a small food reward, by small I mean tidbits, we’re talking meatballs of BOP diet usually around the size of a penny, or mice cut to 1-2 gram pieces. Using small reinforcers allowed for many more opportunities for desired behaviors to be reinforced, and she quickly caught on to the concept of the whistle “bridge” (marker) after only a few repetitions. Using food tidbits also allowed for more repetitions of desired behavior before she would become satiated and greater fluency in using “jackpots”. For instance, a whole mouse could be used as a big reward for good progress, even though it makes up only a small portion of her diet. Within two sessions of introducing the bridge, ‘simple’ behaviors that she already performed naturally on her own accord could be accurately reinforced. Reinforcing these easy to accomplish behaviors allowed Hope’s acquisition of the secondary reinforcer to occur with relative ease. “Simple” behaviors included hopping up to a short stump in her enclosure, looking away from keeper(s), looking at keepers, wing-begging (the baby-like display that young birds often perform around individuals they see as parental figures) or not wing-begging, hopping up to her station perch and other behaviors. Introducing a bridge allowed for better communication between trainer and feathered-trainee by making criteria for reinforcement more clear. This cut down on instances of aggression, frustration and fear.
From there, the focus shifted to crate training. Establishing a reliable crate behavior from Hope was necessary not only to facilitate her participation in the show, but to easily weigh her on a scale for daily health and management checks as well as allow transportation for any future medical procedures or in the event of an emergency (think California wildfires). At first, Hope showed signs of fear when the crate was present during sessions in our enclosed training compound. We opted to move the crate into her enclosure where she was more, at risk of sounding anthropomorphic, “curious” and “comfortable”. We left the crate in her enclosure some nights (with the door to the crate taken off) in an attempt at passive desensitization. Training sessions inside her enclosure progressed rapidly by being precise with the timing of the whistle bridge. Since Hope was quite wary of the crate, we started by reinforcing her simply looking at the crate. Then tiny movements in the direction of the crate were rewarded. Reinforcers were often thrown away from the crate (as opposed to toward or in it) to both establish more repetitions of desired behavior and make the experience more reinforcing (rewarding her for going near the “scary” crate by getting to eat food and move away from the crate).
Then, the crate was baited with a mouse in the back to entice her to enter. Looking inside, leaning toward and eventually touching the crate were all reinforced accordingly, resulting in her eventual willingness to go into the crate for a small piece of food. The first couple of times she went all the way in, she received an immediate jackpot at the front of the crate so that she would physically turn around inside the crate and eat several small pieces while inside facing outward. Pretty soon baiting the crate was phased out as she began going into the crate unprompted and began allowing keepers to close the door. Next, the crate was moved so that it was inside the doorway of her enclosure and eventually outside her enclosure in our training compound. From there the crate would move progressively away from her enclosure until she was comfortable entering it from anywhere inside the training compound. Being able to crate in shifting contexts (outside her enclosure in the training compound versus inside her enclosure) allowed the behavior’s solidification.
Next, we opted to utilize a strategy of back-chaining. Rather than walk her out of the training compound toward the stage to enter a crate, we decided to do the reverse. We began having Hope enter the crate from the doorway of her enclosure (which was placed on a wagon) and moved the crate slowly, with each successful training session, until it was eventually placed on the stage. With each session, she exited her crate and walked with a handler back into the training compound to go “home” for a relatively hefty reward. By making the end of the behavior (receiving a large food reward in her enclosure) the most reinforcing, the rest of her behavioral routine is strengthened.
Once she was able to exit the show stage consistently (a small feat that requires a short jump over some hedges) we started raising the crate off the ground to facilitate short downward hops. Her crate was placed on top of another large crate so that when the door was opened, she would hop a few feet down to the ground. By raising the crate higher off the ground with each successful session she was eventually being released from about 10 feet off the grass. From there we began placing the crate on the stone archway so that she would clear a small gap of plants and a corner section of the stadium seats to jump down to the stage. In this way, Hope learned to glide down to the grass and walk with a handler across the stage, back to her enclosure. Further training involved teaching her to jump up to the archway from the backside, hopping up to a 10 foot wooden pole on stage and remaining there, in addition to slowly introducing an audience. All of this was done in mostly the same manner as previously described using a secondary reinforcer (whistle) and operant conditioning.
While training Hope may seem straightforward based on the above writing, it was not without its challenges. Condors are extremely smart and watchful animals. Hope notices the smallest changes in her environment and it can affect her behavior if she deems them too suspicious. Automobiles, strange rocks and unfamiliar tree stumps are among some of the things Hope demonstrated neophobic tendencies toward, but most have since been overcome.
Another challenge involved a changing bird show team. Staff changes were happening all the while as well. One by one, bird show team members accepted new positions in the zoo and elsewhere over the course of time, and new animal keepers were hired to fill the positions. Of the eight keepers that worked at the bird show when Hope arrived, only four remained. At the time, this meant that most of the Animal Care staff at the bird show did not know Hope very well, and she did not know them. After several instances of biting staff members, most of the bird show team was not very comfortable working with Hope in close proximity. To further complicate the scenario, the bird show Lead Keeper went out on an extended medical leave from work, leaving the team without a senior point of authority to make training decisions. With our lead keeper gone and the number of willing participants in Hope’s training dwindling, I found myself in the position to become her primary trainer. It was at this time that the strategy implemented above was put into motion.
While most of the residing Animal Keepers at the bird show had prior experience working with “KC” and “Sunshine”, the zoo’s female Andean Condors (both of which were trained for the show prior to our employment at the LA Zoo), none of us had actually trained a condor from square one. In addition, none of us had worked with a California Condor, so we met with many of our colleagues at the zoo to learn as much as we could. Meeting with other keepers, curators and trainers gave the bird show team better insight into condor physiology, as well as the social hierarchies, habits, and behavior of these birds in the wild and in human care. Having a better grasp on these factors has helped us not only take great care of Hope, but also better understand and avoid instances of aggression during training while better assessing motivation and metabolism.
Hope’s debut in the LA Zoo’s World of Birds attracted media coverage and attention. The Los Angeles Zoo has played an integral role in the California Condor Recovery Program for the last three decades, but most of the important work being done is out of the public view. Breeding, incubating eggs and chick rearing are incredibly sensitive endeavors that are best done behind closed doors to reduce stress and complications. Needless to say, being able to show the residents and visitors of the city of LA, first hand, just how amazing and important these birds are is something special. Once Hope was conditioned enough to be in shows, another challenge arose. The buzz surrounding a free flight California Condor that people could see, up close and personal, created relatively high expectations. Despite Hope only having been in a few shows, requests were made for special demonstrations and interviews. Patrons and zoo staff alike would often ask why Hope was not in the show that they watched, leading to a perceived pressure by at least one of her keepers (myself) to have Hope in more shows. While this pressure may have only existed in the psyches of Hope’s trainers, it was not without repercussions. Although Hope did progress rapidly in her training, participating in most shows on busy weekends and a few throughout the week (sometimes two shows in a day), some of her show behaviors began to break down. Some days she would act less interested in participating, instead choosing less desirable behaviors like wandering away, refusing to exit the stage and flying into the stadium bleachers during training sessions. While many factors likely contributed to her regression, these obstacles were mitigated by varying the quality, quantity and magnitude of reinforcements in different spots throughout her routine. In essence, an effort was put into “keeping it interesting”. This included changing the food reinforcers and trying new ones in different places to keep her guessing and motivated. For instance, a mega-jackpot of several pounds of horsemeat was placed in her enclosure at the end of a relatively simple training session where she cooperated and exhibited no undesirable behavior. In addition, learning to avoid accidentally reinforcing undesirable behavior by baiting and luring contributed to halting the behavior breakdown.
Hope has been participating in the World of Birds show since February 2019. It took around six months from the time the conditioned reinforcer was introduced until she began participating in shows, but her behavior will always be a work in progress. This is really just the beginning of an incredible journey. Future training goals consist of more staff members being able to work with Hope, opening her wings to show off her near 10 foot wingspan, longer duration on the wooden pole on stage, voluntarily entering a crate backstage and more. Having the opportunity to work with Hope has been an indescribable privilege. I look forward to many more years of her educating and inspiring people as an ambassador to her incredible species in the World of Birds show at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Animal Keeper Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Dmetri is 26 years old and was born and raised in Los Angeles. He graduated from the Zoo Magnet high school in LA in 2010 and he received an Associate's degree and certification in Exotic Animal Training and Management from Moorpark College in 2015. He has gone on to complete a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies at Cal State Los Angeles in 2019. Dmetri has experience training Psittacines, raptors, hornbills and other birds, as well as big cats, wolves, primates and others. In November, Dmetri will have worked at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens for four years, all of which were spent at the Bird Show. He plans to take the CPBT-KA exam this coming fall! Good Luck!
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Alligators are a crocodilian native to North America and is the crocodilian with the northernmost distribution worldwide. These creatures are found as far north as the tidal regions in North Carolina, to as far south as every county in Florida, and as far west as central Texas. Although sometimes found in brackish water settings, the American alligator is most commonly found in freshwater environments of the temperate region due to its low tolerance for salt. The most common areas to observe the American alligator are in marshes, swamps, rivers, ponds, and lagoons. Although the American alligator is sometimes seen on land, it is primarily an aquatic creature. There are two main factors that contribute to habitat inclination for the American alligator. The first factor depends on the sex of the alligator because the female is more interested in protecting her young than the male. A male alligator spends the majority of his time in open waters, while the female only ventures into open water during mating season. The second factor is based on size. The smaller the alligator, the more likely it is to be found in wetlands, where it uses the plant life as a means of protection from predators. Whereas the larger the alligator, the more likely it is to be found in open waters. The sex of the American alligator is temperature-determinant. The sensitive temperature interval for sex determination is 25 to 30 days after the eggs have been laid. A female hatchling is formed when the incubation temperature is 31 degrees C or below. A male is formed when the incubation temperature is 33 degrees C or higher. At 32 degrees C an even ratio of male and female hatchlings are produced. The diet of the American alligator is varied. Two main factors that contribute to the food habits of the American alligator are its size and stage of development. The bigger the alligator, the more it can eat in terms of volume and the bigger animals it can eat. Even in the adult stage, size of the adult affects what they eat; larger adults consume larger prey in greater volume. From neonate to juvenile to adult, the American alligator grows in size, but the distal limbs actually decrease in terms of relative size. This potentially forces the alligator to spend almost all of its time in the water, where in turn it will consume more aquatic animals. During the juvenile life stage, an alligator eats mostly small fish, insects, and invertebrates. As the alligator matures, it starts to eat larger mammals. As an adult, an alligator can also eat reptiles and birds. As of October 2018 the IUCN red list the Alligator as a Least Concern. The American alligator occupies all of its historical range at or close to carrying capacity. The population is abundant and is currently considered to be stable (or growing) at between 0.75 and 1.06 million adults that are well protected and managed. Sustainable use programs for this species are in place with well implemented monitoring programs. Therefore, it remains in the Least Concern category.