Training Animal Behavior

Training wild animals to behave can be a challenging job for Zoo Keepers. We discover how the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, guides animals to keep them safe and comfortable.


Training wild animals to behave can be a challenging job for zookeepers.

In this segment, let's discover how the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, guides animals to keep them safe and comfortable.


The Rosamond Gifford Zoo is an amazing resource for our community.

It's got a high level of animal care, being one of 231 accredited zoos around the country.

That means any visitor that comes through the door is gonna see animals that are housed and are being cared for to the highest possible level.

So, zoos around the country are changing all the time to help better themselves.

This yard is 4 acres, and it really helps us to be able to display our whole herd and kind of mimic a wild setting for them.

And it's really helped us, in that manner, to get a good social structure with our herd.

The fact of the matter is -- they are wild animals, a species of wild animal, but we want them to be as comfortable as possible.

We can't undermine the value of what people get to experience when they're here, but we want to explain it in a way that's positive for the animal, positive for the visitor.

And, overall, the priority is to sustain the population and the individual animals as low-key and as stressless as possible.

Good Romani. Come here.

Good girl.

The training here at the zoo is based on mainly operant conditioning, which means for every action, there's a consequence.

And we use a heavy base on positive reinforcement.

Steady. Good girl.

Essentially, with the elephants, a lot of the training initially is about relationship-building and making sure that the animal trusts you.

And, from there on out, we go through and we habituate the animal to a specific situation, whether it's doing foot-care or blood draws or trunk washes.

All that stuff is tiny baby steps all the way, until we can get to the finish line, which is very rewarding once we can actually draw blood with no issue.

Good girl, Romani.


So, very early on, even in the quarantine period, every animal goes through a quarantine period of at least 30 days.

We'll start to develop a plan -- what its favorite foods are, what might stimulate it.

What it doesn't like.

Then we go from there to develop a training plan.

So, what are our goals gonna be?

The first goal is to get it to go into a crate so it's not stressed when we move it from the quarantine area to its exhibit home.

So that will be the first thing, and that's a -- It could be a 5- or 25-step thing, depending upon the animal.

We start to build the bond of trust between animal and keeper.

A long, long time ago, we had to sedate an animal.

Specifically, in an elephant program, we would bring them into a restricted area and give them a drug to sedate them.

Now we are able to train them to voluntarily do all of those medical procedures and husbandry procedures that we do every day with no stress.

Steady. Good.

So, this is our veterinary hospital treatment room.

And a lot of our smaller patients will come here for regular checkups, all the way up to diagnostic procedures or surgical procedures.

And, so, this is Muppet.

She's an adult female North American porcupine, who is just here for a regular checkup.

Sarah, our animal keeper, is giving her a treat, and I'm watching her to see how she's chewing, how she looks, how she's using her claws and her paws.

And her eyes are clear, nose is clear.

I can do things like listen to her heart.

There are many, many different species that we see here, and each of those species has its own unique anatomy and physiology and medical problems that they develop, which may be very different from a dog or a cat or a domestic animal.

So we are challenged by trying to apply domestic-animal medicine and unique things about exotic animals to our everyday jobs.

So, basically, we store the information of every single animal every single day of its life, so to speak.

So, any event in the animal's life is logged into this system.

So simple things as, for instance, the weight of the animal will be logged into this system.

The day that it was born will be logged into this system.

So, before we had this type of record keeping, it was word of mouth, so to speak, and trying to find out where animals had come from.

And some we wouldn't know the genetics of the animals.

We didn't know where they originated.

That would make it very difficult for us to introduce these animals into these breeding programs.

But it is stored every single day.

Good job, bud.

Hugo, station. Good.

Penguins are a typically very skittish-type species -- Humboldts, in particular, through our research.

So one of the things that we wanted to ensure once we started a colony here was to get them as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible.

One of the things that we initially started with our colony was the scale training, basically getting them conditioned to come in an area that isn't as familiar to them, making it a positive experience for them, and realizing that nothing really bad happens out here.

And now that we pretty much have our entire colony that we can get weights on voluntary each and every month, without having the stress of picking them up and having to transport them somewhere for those procedures.

When we opened this exhibit, back in 2005, we were told, amongst many, many very reputable, accredited facilities, that, 'Well, don't expect to see any breeding with your colony until they become settled.

And it may take anywhere from 3, 4, 5, years.

And, so, we started the conditioning with our training right away, getting them as comfortable as possible, conditioning them to come in and out, and trying to just make it so comfortable for them that, within the first year, we were able to successfully have a reproductive breeding colony and were able to have chicks within the first year of us opening, which was remarkable, and we were really ecstatic about that.

So, every day, every keeper of every animal that lives here at the zoo, one of their biggest challenges of the day is -- the animal's living in the same space for much of its life here.

We might move it around or it might have come or gone from another zoo, but while it's here, we want to make its life as enriched as possible.

Romani, all right. Good.

Good girl.

And, you know, we're here to display the animals and make sure that people see them and make a connection with an endangered species, but we're also here to contribute to the survival of the wild populations.