Monday, July 18, 2011

Artistic Animals

One of the best parts of my job at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is training the animals. You might remember the slowest training session ever with Jumbo Jet the tortoise, for instance. This summer, as a fundraiser, our trainers  taught some of the animals to paint and then auctioned off their artwork at Zoobilee (PDZA's swanky black-tie event).

Herald picked up a brush to help out. His trainers (cleverly) wore thin white suits that we usually only wear when working with animals in quarantine; this kept them (relatively) paint-free during the sessions.

Stella the Abyssinian ground hornbill, as a member of a species known for intelligence and curiosity, seemed like an ideal student. However, training animals always presents new and interesting challenges. For one thing, Stella had to be taught which end of the brush to put on the canvas, which is a concept that human pupils probably already understand.

Here is Stella being rewarded for putting the correct end of the brush onto the canvas.

We use operant conditioning to train all of the animals at the zoo--specifically positive reinforcement, which is a fancy term for giving a treat when the animal does something we like. Of course that's a bit of an oversimplification, but that's the foundation for our methods.

And I'll let you in on a secret. Not only does positive reinforcement work on your dog, your cat and even your tortoise, but it works on people too! I will attempt to film and post a few more training sessions before the summer is over.

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