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Animal training and enrichment

Scale-Training Norma and Nathan the Ring-Tailed Lemurs

Ilana Bram

When I first met Norma and Nathan, they had only been together for about a month.  They were an interesting couple, and I enjoyed watching them. 

Nathan was a new arrival at the zoo, just recently freed from "solitary confinement" (what we call quarantine, a vital procedure that helps prevent the spread of pathogens and diseases between zoos, but Nathan knew nothing of that). He was ten years old, and had spent his whole life up to that point in an all-male bachelor exhibit. As far as I know, the last female he had ever seen was his mother. Confused, disoriented, surrounded by new smells, sounds, and sights, and on his own for the first time in his life, I can only imagine how he must have felt when he got his first whiff of Norma. Not only a fellow lemur, but a FEMALE. The scent alone must have knocked the wind out of him.

Norma was not particularly attractive. In fact, she was a much older lady— more than twice Nathan’s age-- and had a sagging paunch and a less-than-lustrous tail. But to Nathan, I think she was a goddess. 

Lemur societies are female-dominated. Norma was obviously the outgoing, confident one, while Nathan preferred to stand aside and watch her with admiration and deference as she boldly faced people and objects that frightened him. They were sweet to each other, cuddling, grooming, and sleeping side by side. Norma was kind, but she had first choice of everything. If Nathan tried to sneak a piece of apple that she wanted, she thought nothing of slapping his wrist and emitting a soft reproachful call, which sent him bolting up to the safety of his high perch, chattering nervously.

I target-trained them both. Norma was easy. She had had a little training before - luring onto scale and into crate - and she might have had some clicker training in her previous home, the zoo in which she spent the first 22 years of her life. Nathan was another story. Norma often pushed him aside when I came because she loved our training games and wanted the treats for herself.  Besides, he was too afraid of me to come near. But he watched everything intently. One day, I had Norma targeting a block of wood. She touched it, heard her click, and came to me for a treat. Her back turned to him as she ate, Nathan saw his big chance. He hopped over to the block, looked me in the eye, and touched the block. I clicked and tossed the treat by his feet. He snatched the dried cranberry with his skinny black fingers and ran off to eat it, looking pleased with himself. 

It took Nathan a long time to feel comfortable enough to take a treat from my hand, but in the end he did. I rewarded Norma for staying in place and not chasing him off, and for every click and treat that Nathan earned, Norma usually got one too. 

The lemurs were easy animals and had no behavior problems, so I spent my time elsewhere. One day, however, the keeper in charge of weighing the lemurs every month told me she was having trouble. For the past four months, the lemurs had refused to go into their crate to be weighed, and it was becoming a problem. The keeper suspected that one of the interns accidentally frightened the lemurs when they were last weighed. Whatever the cause, the lemurs wanted nothing to do with the crate, no matter how many treasures were hidden inside. 

I brought in the crate to begin training. Norma and Nathan ran up to the highest perch, clicking loudly in alarm. I took out my target stick and gave them a few easy touches, but when I tried to lead them down the high perch they refused. They wouldn’t go near the thing. “It’s OK. You can stay up there,” I thought. We were making progress by pairing the Scary Trap Box with their favorite treats for time being. It would take a while, but I knew what works: giving them full choice and control, breaking down the goal behavior into itty bitty parts, and rewarding every step of the way with high-value treats. 

The lemurs would change how they felt about the Scary Trap Box in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, I decided to teach them how to to climb on a portable scale. That was much easier. I began by having them stand on the scale cover. Norma thought this was hardly a challenge:

Next, I used a target stick to lead them onto the scale:

The time we spent scale-training brought us closer. With every click and treat, the lemurs learned to trust me.  They no longer ran away when I came in with the crate. 

I rewarded the lemurs for being in the same room as the crate, looking at the crate, approaching the crate half a step, approaching one step, two, three, looking into the crate from a distance, poking their heads in, leaning in, reaching in, stepping in half way, and finally, at long last, for going all the way into the crate. 

One of the most rewarding things an animal trainer can do is take something the animal hates and fears, and turn it into a fun, favorite activity. The Scary Trap Box had become the Box of Thrills and Wonders.