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Animal trainers are teaching wildlife to conserve themselves

  • Positive training helps pets and their owners bond. But animal trainers working to conserve wildlife often have the opposite goal: teaching animals in the wild to avoid human beings — people often being the most dangerous creatures in the jungle.
  • Wildlife kept in zoos have been trained with rewards to accept unnatural processes, procedures that previously might have required restraint or even anesthesia: allowing tooth brushing, hoof trimming, injections and blood draws — turning once alien actions into positive experiences for the captive animals.
  • Animal trainers decades ago learned to train dolphins without having physical contact with the animals. More recently, a chimpanzee troop in Sierra Leone was taught to scream alarm in unison when poachers approached, alerting nearby rangers to come to the rescue — achieving an 80 percent decrease in poaching.
  • Trainers have taught captive bred condors how to be more like wild condors, seeking food within their natural habitat and not congregating in towns. They’ve also taught polar bears to avoid anything associated with humans, preventing the bears from raiding trash cans and significantly decreasing wildlife conflicts.
Ken Ramirez honed his animal training skills working for many years with dolphins. Photo courtesy of Ken Ramirez

Mention animal training and most of us imagine teaching a dog to sit up for a treat — not something with an obvious conservation connection. But in fact, modern scientifically based wildlife training traces its origins not to canines, but to dolphins, aquatic mammals with whom trainers had to devise teaching methods neither involving force nor requiring direct contact.

Today, the techniques first practiced with dolphins many decades ago are used with a surprising number of wild species, ranging from chimpanzees (not so surprising), to butterflies (quite surprising!). Notably, conservationists are finding that the skills of animal trainers can be effective in protecting animals, even in their natural habitats.

The concept of training wild animals in their native environments seems strange to most of us, agrees Ken Ramirez, likely because we have the wrong idea about it. “There’s a big misperception about what training is,” he says. “The simple definition of training is teaching, and teaching is not an unnatural thing.”

Wild animals teach their offspring how to find food, how to avoid predators; they are learning all the time via their interactions with their environment. “The only thing a professional trainer does is we help guide that learning.”

Animal trainer Ramirez with an otter pup. Photo courtesy of Ken Ramirez

Zoo learning

Ramirez speaks from 40 years experience, including more than 25 years at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He literally wrote the textbook on positive reinforcement for animal management in captivity. Following these methods, zoo trainers have taught animals around the globe to cooperate willingly with procedures that previously required restraint or even anesthesia: allowing tooth brushing, hoof trimming, even injections and blood draws — turning once alien actions into positive experiences for captive animals.

“They participate because it’s a fun game they’ve been taught to play,” says Ramirez. “If you teach a tiger to come into an enclosure for a medical exam, when they come into the enclosure you might give them a big slab of meat or a toy they like to play with — something that makes it worthwhile for them to participate.”

That’s no different from what happens in nature, say where an animal climbs a particular species of tree and finds a certain type of fruit. Over time, that animal learns to climb that tree again and again in expectation of the same positive result.

Keeping that fact in mind, any animal can be trained, even those we don’t think of as “smart.” Ramirez, for example, once trained 10,000 butterflies for a show where the insects flew en masse, on cue, from one location to another in three different groups, at three different times.

“Whether you’re talking about a butterfly or you’re talking about a Harvard graduate, we all learn the same way,” says Ramirez.

In Sierra Leone, a chimpanzee troop was trained to scream in unison when humans appeared on the scene, sounding an alarm that alerted nearby rangers to the approach of poachers. The researchers were surprised to see the adult chimps pass this lesson on to their young. Photo on Visual Hunt

Training at a distance

Training animals in zoos is all well and good, but applying such techniques in the wild has its challenges. For example, even if you could get near the wild animals you wished to teach, you wouldn’t want them to associate people with a reward — especially since one of the most important conservation lessons a wild animal may need to learn is to keep away from us, because humans can be very dangerous.

So trainers who work with wildlife must actively figure out how to reward at a distance, within a species’ home territory.

One ongoing project that Ramirez helped design involves a troop of wild chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. Trainers began with a behavior that was already present — a chimp, or several chimps, tended to scream when seeing an unfamiliar human. The trainers’ goal: teach the troop to all call in unison when they saw poachers, raising a racket loud enough to be heard at a nearby ranger station.

The trainers designed a remotely activated system of PVC pipes able to dispense food to the treetops at the push of a button. If a chimp screamed when an unfamiliar vehicle or human was spotted, the button was pushed and positive reinforcement provided in the form of treats for all the chimps.

“The animals learned that [the arrival of strangers is] the cue to scream at the top of my lungs, and if I scream at the top of my lungs, insects and fruit suddenly appear,” Ramirez explains. Before long, the whole troop was consistently screaming in unison, sounding the alarm. The result since the project was first implemented in 2000: an 80 percent decline in chimps lost to poaching. A bigger surprise, the lesson, once learned, became part of the troop’s culture: the adult primates have passed the new behavior on to their offspring.

A condor in flight. Animal trainers assisted researchers in teaching captive bred condors how to act more like wild condors. Photo credit: szeke on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Lessons from wildlife reintroductions

One early example of animal training that helped a conservation project to succeed involved the captive breeding and reintroduction of the California condor. Biologists were careful to raise the condors without ever seeing people so they wouldn’t associate humans with food and care. But, when researchers released the first batch of captive raised birds, there was an unexpected problem.

That’s when they called in Steve Martin, a bird trainer with decades of experience, who has consulted with more than a hundred zoos around the world.

Martin was taken to a valley town below the release site, and saw the trouble: “Condors were landing on roadways, landing on houses, landing on power poles and getting electrocuted,” he says. “They were landing at a little cafe and people were feeding the condors hamburgers and hotdogs on the ground outside. Condors were everywhere.”

The biologists were perplexed by this unnatural behavior. But Martin immediately knew what had happened: no one had ever taught these condors how to be condors.

“Condors in the wild spend two years with their parents. That’s when they learn the skills for survival. They learn how to avoid danger and find food,” he says. Now the scientists had “taken these young condors with no parental guidance and sent them out in the wild with just a pat on the back and a wish for good luck.”

To get the birds out of town, the biologists had tried hoses and water guns. But the birds only learned to be afraid of scientists. “The neighbors can walk right up to them, but they see our cars and our uniforms and they fly away,” a frustrated conservationist told Martin, who worked with the project from 2000-2010.

Martin recognized the problem: “They were asking the wrong question: ‘How do we stop the condors from going into town?’ The right question was: ‘What do we want them to do instead?’ — Instead of trying to punish the behavior of going into town, focus on the behavior you want, which is staying in the mountains.”

Animal trainer Steve Martin assisted biologists in successfully reintroducing condors to the wild. Photo credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Part of the solution was changing how the released birds were provisioned. Initially upon release, they had been getting the same kind of food at the same time on the same days. Martin instructed the scientists to begin providing a variety of foods at random times. “By building in some variability — type, amount and location of food — we get [the condors] thinking about it,” he says. And knowing food could show up at any time at the provisioning site in the wild, it became worth it to stick around and wait for it.

Another crucial lesson: the team had to stand in as parents and teach the condors that humans were potentially dangerous — even at a distance — in order to keep them far enough away to avoid being shot.

A teaching opportunity offered itself: while the condors were in pre-release pens in the mountains, the researchers needed to handle the birds a few times in order to attach ID tags and do health testing. To train in aversion to humans, two people — the first ever seen by the birds — would approach down a nearby path. Immediately, keepers would rush into the pens, catch the birds, attach the tags and do the tests.

“The first time the condors saw the people out there [on the trail], they were just curious and sat on their perches. Then fourteen people came into the pen with nets and the condors just sat there looking at them, not knowing what they were,” Martin recalls, and those “people could literally walk up to a condor and grab them by the leg or wing.”

But the birds definitely learned from that first encounter. The next couple of times the process was repeated, most of them became agitated as soon as they saw the people on the path. “Then those fourteen people came in, and this time it was really hard to catch those condors.”

The technique was ultimately effective. After release, a few birds approached people and had to be brought in for retraining. But most had learned the lesson, and some of those condors are still out there, playing their part in a hugely successful conservation story.

Polar bears were successfully taught to not hunt for food in human communities in a project that ran from 2009-2015. Photo on VisualHunt

Trainers in the wild

While the condors were trained before release, Ramirez has solved a similar problem with wild polar bears in a project that took place from 2009-2015. The traditional solution to bears coming into towns to forage had been to post guards and shoot off firecracker shells when one was spotted. That would scare the big predators away for the moment, but had no long term-effect: the same bears would return again and again, with some towns experiencing over 300 encounters per year — a potential threat to both animals and people.

Ramirez saw that while the townspeople had the right idea using scare tactics, their timing was off. “Here’s the thing we know about behavior: you can make permanent changes to behavior if you teach it the right way,” he says. “If you’re going to scare the bear anyway, wait to scare the bear till it connects [the scare] to something human.”

Making noise when a bear was first spotted on a road approaching the town didn’t teach it anything useful. Instead, Ramirez says, wait till its nose touches a garbage can, a fence, the wheel of a truck, something human. Then scare it! Think: a housemate waiting in ambush and yelling at you every time you approach the fridge for a late night snack.

“Sometimes it only has to happen once and that bear now knows: I need to avoid human things,” he says. “You still don’t hurt the bear; you still scare it away like you were doing anyway, but now you use behavior principles to time that scary incident with something that you want it to always avoid.”

The goal of animal trainers was to teach polar bears to seek food in the wild, not in towns. Photo credit: nubui on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Easy vs. difficult choices

Ramirez says that determining the rationale behind successful wildlife training isn’t mysterious, it’s often very familiar: “Like all of us, if we have a choice between doing something the easy way and doing it the hard way, most of us will take the easy way. So that’s what you do to help animals make the correct choice. Make the choice that you want them to pick, easy. Make the choice you want them to quit doing, harder.”

Take the polar bears for example. At first, human food sources were easy to access. The trainers made that choice harder for the bears in two ways: not only were scare tactics made more timely so as to be associated with the food source itself, but the townspeople also were encouraged to better secure dumpsters, trash cans and other items that attracted the animals.

Then in addition to making human food harder to get and an unpleasant experience, the bears were given positive reinforcement by being shown where to get easier meals. Food lures were placed in such a way as to draw the animals away from town and into wild habitat with a natural food supply.

It worked: “In some of these towns, there were over 300 incidents per year. In many cases those incidents were reduced to less than ten,” says Ramirez.

Carrot vs. stick

When creating teachable moments to enhance conservation efforts, trainers employ a range of methods to help wildlife recognize and avoid dangerous situations. But both Ramirez and Martin agree that it is best to first seek a way to reward a desired behavior, rather than punish an undesirable one.

Ramirez has spent much of his career trying to convince people to train their dogs using positive reinforcement. And Martin points out that scientific studies have shown that training pets with punishment can have adverse consequences.

But when a wild animal’s survival is at stake, all possible tools need to be considered — including devising a momentary unpleasant experience to make a dangerous behavior unattractive. The key is choosing the right tool for the right task at the right moment. “We are always looking for how to use positive reinforcement to get what we want, but if we are going to use something aversive, we use sound behavior principles so the animal learns something in that one encounter,” Ramirez says.

Of course, he adds, both pleasant and unpleasant learning experiences are common in the wild. “If an animal escapes a predator, that animal quickly learns how to detect [the] predator and how to avoid it.” Aversion-training applied by humans can happen quickly and humanely — and while the animals may not enjoy the teachable moment, they’re never in any real danger.

Animal trainers emphasize one big difference between training a dog and teaching a polar bear to stay out of the trash: conservation projects aren’t designed to bring people and animals closer together. “Often with wildlife, you want to teach them to be afraid of people,” says Ramirez, behavior that can ultimately save their lives, and protect their species.

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