Enhancing Captive Care through Animal Training

One mechanism zoos use to facilitate animal care is operant conditioning training. Training with positive reinforcement allows animals to voluntarily participate in sessions aimed at improving care and well-being. The SSP® recommends that all gorillas be involved in a positive reinforcement training program to assist in their daily management and care. Behaviors to be trained should be prioritized based on the goals of the animal care, veterinary and research teams. Often, shifting from one room or area to another, sitting at a station, and targeting to an object are priority behaviors. It is important to realize that gorillas can be trained for a number of behaviors that can facilitate veterinary medicine and research.

For example, behaviors that facilitate the inspection of body parts for wound treatment and administration of medications can aid health management.

Shifting, stationing, and targeting are basic husbandry behaviors that can be utilized in facilitating the successful introduction of new group members. The ability to reliably move an animal between rooms or exhibit features allows more freedom in preparing introduction situations. Additionally, the ability to station or target an animal in an area can be used to build tolerance during feeding and allow for other group members to be trained without physically separating all group members. These basic behaviors provide flexibility in management and the number of situations in which they can be applied is almost limitless. As such, these behaviors should be training priorities in any training program. Gorillas have been trained to open their mouths, show their hands and feet, allow tympanic temperature to be taken, and present various body parts for inspection. Some institutions have been successful at training gorillas to accept injections or oral birth control pills. Infant care training is a priority for animals that are first time mothers or have a history of poor maternal care.

The most effective caregivers have earned the trust and acceptance of the gorillas in their care through patience, compassion, and consistency. Knowledge and understanding of the natural history of gorillas, as well as each animal’s individual history, is mandatory. Keen powers of observation are also necessary to detect both medical problems and even slight changes in individual behavior or group social dynamics. By using all tools available to them, gorilla keepers optimize their ability to effectively respond to and manage gorilla behavior.