“Quacking” the Code

When most people think of training animals, they think of alligators, lions, or other exotic animals that would be difficult to handle. However, our keeper Maggie Sipe is here to tell you that is not always the case! Even ducks- a seemingly simple animal- take patience and dedication to “quack” the code to successful training! Here’s Maggie’s report on how our three call ducks (adorably named after “The Big Bang Theory” characters) responded to their training, and how they are doing now:

Three call duck clutch mates, named Sheldon, Howard, and Leonard, arrived at the zoo in April of 2014. They were wary of keepers and unsure of their new environment. A need for training was established and positive relationship building began immediately.

Before training could begin, it was necessary to get the ducks more comfortable with the keepers and to get them to accept food from keepers. For months, all keepers who worked in the area would spend as much time as they could with the ducks to desensitize them to the keepers’ presence. Pretty soon, they readily accepted food from the keepers’ hands and would anticipate the arrival of keepers by exiting the pool to approach them.  Now that reinforcement could be delivered, the call duck training program began.


Training all three ducks at once proved to be a challenge, so individual training was pursued instead. Target training- getting the ducks to respond only to their specific target (corresponding to a color) was the first behavior goal for the ducks. The trainers believed it would be the most useful tool as a base for training.

Sheldon was the most dominant and food motivated individual at the time so training began with him. Sheldon was presented with the yellow target stick first. Through his natural curiosity, he pecked at it and caught on quickly that pecking the yellow stick led to a reward. Next he had to be taught that ignoring the red and blue targets led to a reward.  The trainer presented the red or blue target then bridged and reinforced before Sheldon had a chance to peck it.  Howard proved the second-most eager to participate, so he was trained next.  Sheldon remained indifferent to a second participant, as long as he received target training in the same session. The process was repeated with Howard using the red target stick. Having already trained color discrimination with Sheldon, the trainer applied previously learned lessons.  When Howard was introduced to the other targets, the trainer immediately reinforced for no reaction to yellow or blue.  This made the process much smoother for this individual.

Leonard was the least dominant individual and often displaced from food by his clutch mates.  To build Leonard’s confidence, the other two individuals were targeted out of the pool and heavily reinforced on the ground so that Leonard could train in the pool. Leonard was presented with the blue stick and quickly caught on that pecking it lead to a reward. By the time Leonard was ready to learn color discrimination, the other two no longer had to be separated out of the pool. It then became apparent that no training had to be done for this step as Leonard already avoided the other two targets.

Target training became such a strong and well established behavior that every time the trainer would enter the duck enclosure, the ducks would excitedly crowd around the trainer and run around displacing each other for opportunities to train, even fighting occasionally. This was the basis for the decision to train a station behavior next because stationing would be incompatible with running around and fighting. The criteria for the finished behavior would involve each duck calmly standing with both feet on their station mat.  The station mats were color specific which matched to each individual’s target color.  This mat could be moved throughout a session, and the duck would follow.

 

All three ducks on their training mats!

While the stations were successful in keeping the ducks in a relative location, they would not stay on station for any length of time.  A change in approach for station training was adapted from our sea lion training team and solved the issue. The sea lions at our facility are only reinforced once they have returned to station after completing a desired behavior and are calm for the acceptance of reinforcement.  When applied to the ducks, they would be targeted to a different area, but reinforcement was only given once they were back calmly waiting on their station.

The call ducks are vastly more comfortable in keepers’ presence after completing their training. The ducks are no longer fearful of enrichment items presented by the keepers and readily investigate new things. Keepers are able to observe their behaviors more easily and are able to determine the effectiveness of the enrichment towards eliciting natural behaviors. The ducks readily come out of their pool at night and shift into their indoor holding without the need of aversives. Monthly weights are recorded with no stress to the ducks at all.

The lives of these three individual ducks have improved greatly since the initiation of their training program. Giving the animals the choice to participate in their care has proved beneficial in improving the welfare for these individuals. Training these three small ducks has proved that every animal, no matter how big or how small, deserves a chance to have the choice and control in their environment.

 

Pig School

Elvis and Pugsley may be known for their good looks, but did you know that they’re smart, too?  The zoo’s Kunekune pigs are already intelligent animals, and now they’re going to school!

Their school is the barnyard and their teachers are zoo keepers.

Zoo keeper Heather Schuh and section supervisor Laura Sievers train Elvis and Pugsley almost every morning.  Schuh and Sievers begin each training session by greeting the animals and inviting them to participate.  If the animals choose to train that day, keepers offer treats each time an animal performs a desired behavior (like sitting, turning, or moving indoors).  The pigs’ treat is a piece of carrot, which serves as positive reinforcement for the animals.  Keepers also follow the desired behavior with a secondary form of reinforcement, like a quiet whistle.

Why train pigs?  Behavior management coordinator Holly Walsh explains the benefits, “Training gives the animals a choice to participate, thereby reducing stress for both the animals and their keepers.  Training also encourages animals to cooperate in their daily routines and also their veterinary care.” Elvis and Pugsley are learning three behaviors that will help with future vet exams:  sit, turn, and hold still. “We use positive reinforcement to teach the animals how to participate in their own care,” says Walsh. 

Animal training sessions happen every day at the zoo, and they’re fun to watch!  Stop by the Indiana Family Farm on your next zoo trip and ask a keeper if any of the animals are training that day.  You might get to watch the pigs go to school.

Click on the photos to enlarge:

 

See What Happens When the Zoo Vet Visits the Farm

What’s it like to give annual physicals to a barn filled with animals?  We followed zoo veterinarian Kami Fox as she visited the Indiana Family Farm this week to give check-ups to the tortoises, barn owl, and cow, and to supervise the donkeys’ yearly hoof-trimming.

Tortoises Norbert and Purdue went first.  Dr. Fox examined their mouths, noses, eyes, skin, and shells.  Zoo keepers condition the tortoises’ shells with baby oil every two weeks to keep them moisturized.  Vet techs Maraiah Russell and Angie Slentz helped Dr. Fox draw blood for lab tests to assess overall health.

Next it was Lindbergh the barn owl’s turn.  Dr. Fox examined Lindbergh’s wings and feet for abnormalities.   Dr. Fox also performed a routine blood draw on Lindbergh, then the owl was weighed on a small scale.  Lindbergh did not appear stressed during the exam but all the activity must have made her sleepy – afterwards she flew up to a high corner and took a nap!

Ellie the cow was the next patient.  Ellie weighs over 800 pounds, making her exam a five-person job from start to finish.   Keepers kept Ellie calm by offering a steady supply of apples and hay for munching.  First came Ellie’s foot exam and hoof filing by a professional farrier, which encourages even weight distribution and contributes to joint health. Next, Dr. Fox felt Ellie’s body for abnormalities and to assess the fat-to-muscle ratio that the large bovine carries.  She then listened to Ellie’s four stomachs with a stethoscope, checked her eyes and mouth, and drew a blood sample.  Finally, it was time for Ellie’s yearly TB test and vaccines.

Donkeys Sarah and Sonja also received special care.  It wasn’t time for their annual annual exam yet, but it was time for a visit from the farrier, who pronounced their feet healthy.

After the round of barnyard exams, Dr. Fox said, “There are no serious medical issues to report at this time.  All the animals are in good condition. Norbert and Purdue’s oil application will be continued to keep their skin and shells conditioned and Ellie will remain on a controlled diet to help her stay lean and healthy.  Of course, we’ll continue to monitor all of the animals year-round for any medical issues.”

When you visit the zoo this summer, stop by the Indiana Family Farm to say hello to your barnyard friends, and wish them continued good health!

Click on the photos to enlarge:

call duck fort wayne zoo

How To Train A Call Duck – And Why We Do It

The three fluffy call ducks at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s Indiana Family Farm have a busy life.  When they’re not swimming, socializing, eating, or partaking in enrichment activities, our ducks participate in training sessions with their zoo keeper.

Why do we train our ducks?

“Target training gives the animals more choice and control, which reduces stress on them,” says zoo keeper Maggie Sipe.  Sipe trains the call ducks by rewarding them for choosing to target specific objects or stand in designated spots.  “Call ducks can see color very well,” says Sipe, “and our training teaches them to move toward a specific color.  This is useful when the animals must move indoors due to weather or for medical checkups.  The ducks can choose to move into a crate and would not need to be chased or handled.”

The three male ducks, named Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard after a popular T.V. show, eagerly waddle toward their zoo keeper when it’s time for a training session.  “I’m proud of how well these three boys are doing,” says Sipe of the trio’s training efforts, “they are very good at targeting their own colors.”

The zoo employs positive reinforcement when training animals.  With positive reinforcement, zoo keepers offer a reward when an animal performs a desired behavior.  The call ducks receive a reward when they move to a desired location or target their assigned color with their beaks.

Their reward is simple but effective.  “I give them one green pea or a piece of corn when they perform a desired behavior,” says Sipe, “Those are the treats that motivate them.”

This video shows Sipe training Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard in their exhibit while zoo guests observed from the path:

The following photo set is from a recent indoor training session.  (The ducks live indoors when the weather gets cold.)  Click on the photos to enlarge:

rooster fort wayne

Indiana Family Farm By The Numbers

The Indiana Family Farm is a must-see attraction at the zoo.  Guests can walk through a working barn and pet donkeys, sheep, pigs, and more!  Just outside the barn is the chicken coop where the rooster crows, and a few yards down the path is the goat yard – where our curious goats are always ready to make a new friend.

It takes many hardworking hands to care for all of our hoofed and feathered friends, and those hands stayed busy this summer!  Here’s a 2015 recap of the Indiana Family Farm by the numbers:

  • 9 zoo keepers
  • 12 species of animals
  • 29 goats
  • 48 individual animals in all
  • 680 bales of hay
  • 1,020 bags of wood shavings
  • 3,400 pounds of grain
  • 618,498 guests served during the 2015 season

All those numbers add up to one great experience for zoo guests.

Zoo keeper Laura Sievers contributed to this blog and had this to say about her work in the Indiana Family Farm, “Whether it’s the first place or the last place our guests visit, the Indiana Family Farm is a place for making memories.”

Click on the photos to enlarge.  (Not pictured:  The barn mouse.  He was hiding.)

sheep|fort wayne zoo

Mother and Son Makeovers

Roxanne and Jerry (the mother-son sheep duo at the Indiana Family Farm) are sporting new looks this month.  Each is about five pounds lighter and probably feeling much cooler after their routine shearing on August 28.

Shearing is a twice-yearly event at the zoo and requires two zoo keepers.  This time around, keepers Heather Schuh and Laura Sievers did the honors.

This video shows the shearing process:

The wool is donated to local artisans who spin it into yarn.

Click to enlarge Roxanne’s and Jerry’s before-and-after photos:

 

bee on flower

2, 4, 6, 8, We Can Help Them Pollinate!

Why are we cheering for pollinators?  Because their work is important to our environment! Pollination is an essential step in the life cycle of many flowering and cone-bearing plants (not just the kinds that look pretty, the kinds we eat as well).

Here are some of the things the zoo is doing to help the pollinators (bees, butterflies, birds, and more) that help to sustain our food chain:

Pollinator Gardens

The proper term for the pollinator gardens at the zoo is “Monarch Waystations,” and we have two of them.  One is located at the Indiana Family Farm and the other is on the hill that runs parallel to the Sky Safari ride in the African Journey.  Gardens like these can look a little rough in their early years, but once established they bear flowers yearly and require minimal upkeep.

Zoo keeper Dave Messmann is part of a team of zoo staff and volunteers working to expand the Monarch Waystations and keep them flourishing.  Messman offers some suggestions regarding pollinator-friendly plants, “There are many species of native plants you could put in a pollinator garden.  Some of the plants we have at the Indiana Family Farm are goldenrod, milkweed, and bee balm.  They’re all different colors.”

Messmann explains that a healthy garden is one that can sustain various forms of life, “If you look close you can see a little ecosystem develop.  Aphids live on the plants, insects eat the aphids.  Sometimes the inside of the stem is a place where insects can develop.  The garden becomes self-sustainable.”

And a sustainable garden is the kind of place where monarch butterflies, bees, and other pollinators flourish.  Here are photos of some of the plants in the zoo’s Monarch Waystations.  Click on the photos to enlarge, and consider including some pollinator-friendly plants in your next gardening project:

Bee Keeping

There’s a beehive at the zoo, and it’s a unique one.  Our hive has clear sides, so guests can have a look inside at the bees’ hard work.  Bees pollinate a variety of plants, including many of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts we eat.  The next time you eat apples, broccoli, or almonds, thank a bee!  If you’d like to learn more about bee keeping, visit the American Beekeeping Federation website.  Click on the photos to enlarge:

Education

In the summer of 2015, the zoo devoted an entire day to pollinator education at our What’s The Buzz event.  Zoo guests learned about the importance of pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Kids participated in several event stations, and even built “beehives” from re-used materials to learn how bees work together.  Education helps us understand pollinators and the critical role they play in the food chain.  We’re all in this together!

What’s the Deal With Animal Enrichment?

Animal enrichment is a big deal at the zoo.  We even dedicate one of our summer events, Ice Day, to enriching animals.  Zoo keepers, trainers, and vet staff spend a lot of time planning the animals’ enrichment calendars, but what exactly is animal enrichment, and why do we do it?

Enrichment means providing a stimulating environment that offers physical and mental challenges for an animal. When elements of an animal’s zoo environment mimic the problem-solving opportunities they encounter in the wild, the animals exhibit natural behaviors. Enrichment can help zoo animals thrive socially, mentally, and physically.

The zoo provides a variety of enrichment for animals:

Edible Enrichment  Tengku the orangutan digs for tasty seeds inside a pumpkin (2)

Finding food in the wild can be a complex activity for an animal. For instance, orangutans find ripe fruit in the wild, then forage carefully for the seeds, which they eat.  Pumpkins are an edible enrichment item for the zoo’s orangutans because the animals must use this natural foraging behavior to extract and eat the pumpkin seeds.

A capuchin monkey with ice watermarkSensory Enrichment

Many animals have a well-developed sense of smell to find prey, locate water, and avoid predators. The zoo’s capuchin monkeys love to sniff out spices scattered in their exhibits.  On a previous Ice Day, zoo keepers froze fragrant spices into ice blocks.  Upon finding an ice block, a capuchin flung it across the island!

Gorgon's brushing komodo dragonTextural Enrichment

In a natural habitat, an animal will encounter new textures every day as it forages, hunts, and finds shelter. At the zoo, keepers brush the Komodo dragon’s rough scales with a long-handled brush (from a safe distance, of course!)

 

goat food enrichment puzzle feederProblem-Solving Enrichment

Zoo keepers encourage animals to use their natural intelligence by hiding food in “puzzle feeders.” The friendly goats in the Indiana Family Farm use their problem-solving skills while they work as a group to reach tasty lettuce hidden in the feeders.

 

sea lion 600x600Training Enrichment

Zoo guests can watch the sea lions receive training enrichment every day at the 11:30 AM and 3 PM feeding shows. By requesting behaviors and rewarding the sea lions with fish, zoo keepers provide an intense and entertaining enrichment session. The sea lions get both physical and mental exercise, and the keepers develop a trusting relationship with the sea lions.

 

Do you want to get involved?  Join us at an upcoming Animal Enrichment Workshop, where you’ll make some of the enrichment objects that zoo animals receive every day!

Goat close up with watermark|fort wayne children's zoo

9 Tips For Making the Most of Your Zoo Visit (Goats are #7)

No summer vacation is complete without a trip to the zoo!  Here are nine tips for making the most of your zoo visit:

#1 – Catch a FREE sea lion show.  They happen at Sea Lion Beach every day at 11AM and 3PM.

#2 – Buy a ride pass.  You’ll get 12 rides for the price of 10…and don’t worry if you don’t use all 12 in one day.  Ride passes never expire!

#3 – Visit our newest babies.  Asmara the baby Sumatran orangutan lives in the zoo’s Indonesian Rain Forest and there’s a new colobus monkey baby in the African Journey.  Our kangaroo mob has a new joey that just started venturing out of the pouch.

#4 – Feed a giraffe.  You can buy a piece of lettuce at the giraffe platform for 1 token ($1).  One of our friendly giraffes might come up and eat it right out of your hand!

#5 – Turn your zoo trip into a learning experience.  Visit the For Educators page on our website for ideas and resources.

#6 – Chat with a volunteer.  Our amazing volunteers love talking with guests and sharing their passion for animals and education.  Zoo volunteers are easy to spot – they wear bright red shirts with the zoo logo.

#7 – Make a friend at the Indiana Family Farm.  You’re allowed to pet many of the animals in the barn, including goats, sheep, and donkeys.  Ask a zoo keeper or volunteer for help if you’re not sure how to approach an animal.  They’re there to help.

#8 – Try some new fare.  You’ll find lots of new menu items at our remodeled concession stands.

#9 – Share your memories.  Post your pictures to our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds.  Your photo could be featured on the front page at kidszoo.org!

Verreaux's eagle o

Who’s Hoo-ing at the Zoo

There are three owl species at the zoo, and each is beautiful and interesting in its own way.  Learn a little more about these feathered birds of prey, then visit them on your next zoo trip:

Eurasian Eagle Owl

eurasian eagle owlEsmerelda and Andrey are new at the zoo this season.  The pair arrived in March, sponsored by a generous donation from the German Heritage Society.  Zoo development director Amy Lazoff received the donation and noted that owlets are a possibility for the breeding pair.

Zoo guests can visit the Eurasian eagle owl exhibit in Central Zoo, near the red pandas, and be sure observe the ground for owl pellets.

Like other birds of prey, owls regurgitate pellets made of bones, claws, teeth, fur, and other indigestible items.  Owls feed on small mammals, such as mice and voles.

Owl pellets tend to be large and are often used for study in animal education programs.

 

Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

Verreaux's eagle oThis beautiful bird species can be found in the zoo’s African Journey.  Roosevelt, the male, came to Fort Wayne in 2010.  A female named Mio joined him just in time for the 2015 zoo season, arriving in March.

Zoo keeper Ty Laemmle enjoys introducing guests to the Verreaux’s eagle owls.  “They have bright pink eyelids and also are famous for eating hedgehogs,” states Laemmle.  The owls avoid hedgehog-related injuries by peeling the sharp spines off before ingesting their prey.

At the zoo, the Verreaux’s eagle owls eat large mice, chicks, and small rats.

Verreaux’s eagle owls are often called “milky eagle owls” because of their coloring.  Look for Mio near the front of the exhibit and Roosevelt near the back, as this is the birds’ preferred seating arrangement.

Common Barn Owl

common barn owlThere’s a third species of owl that many guests overlook at the zoo.  Our common barn owl, Lindbergh, isn’t always active during the day.  A “night owl” by all accounts, Lindbergh is typically active after dark but may perk up during feeding time at 5PM, making Wild Wendesdays a great time to visit.

Guests can visit Lindbergh in the Indiana Family Farm.  Zoo keeper Heather Schuh states that guests have the opportunity to observe Lindbergh’s weighing if they happen to be in the right place at the right time, “She gets weighed once every other month which involves us catching her to put her in a crate and then onto a scale. If the guests happen to be here on that day, they will see her very active.”

Schuh anticipates Lindbergh’s next weighing will occur on or around June 1.