September 2, 2022

What is Animal Conditioning?

One of Fossil Rim’s core tenets is education, both of guests and future wildlife professionals. However, the education can extend even further when you consider how we teach our animals new behaviors. Working with non-domesticated animals is a complicated task, and typically we try to take a more hands-off approach. That being said, there are many instances that require hands-on interactions with animals. These include administering medicine and performing ultrasounds or routine health checks. It takes time for animals to get used to the tools we use with them, as well as patience to build up trust. However, the results make keeping them safe and healthy much easier, and therefore is crucial to our continued conservation success. 

Personalized Care

Not every species has the same routine when it comes to conditioning and care. The majority of our herd animals are not trained to approach our staff in the same way as our carnivores. For this and other reasons, we typically use anesthetics to sedate our hoofstock for procedures rather than training them to stand on targets or enter special areas. Still, we do teach them in other ways. They have learned where to eat based on where our staff leaves their food every morning, and what it means when a guest vehicle comes down the road.

White rhinos receiving blood draws. These are voluntary, and our team works together to get them done quickly and without stress.

For other species, like our rhinos, their conditioning is a little more specific. Our Southern White Rhinos are a vulnerable species, while our Southern Black Rhinos are critically endangered. Individuals at any facility need to be closely monitored, for their own health as well as for research purposes. 

Conditioning Our Rhino

So, what does conditioning a rhino look like? According to Justin Klauss and Tim Lloyd, two of our animal care specialists who work with our rhinos, it can depend on a lot of factors. For instance, white rhinos are a herd species, so they live together and have connections with each other. This can make singling out one individual a bit more complicated. Our black rhinos, on the other hand, are a solitary species, making them easier to manage. 

Training rhinos to understand what we want from them involves a lot of repetition and a lot of rewards. Rewards are positive reinforcement— for instance, stepping on a scale may get a rhino a slice of sweet potato, or maybe a back scratch. Even if they are nervous around new objects at the beginning, the calm demeanor of the staff doing the training paired with the rewards soon helps the rhino build a good association with the behavior. 

A rhino that has been trained to step on a scale for weight checks.

Even more than rewards though, Justin says it’s about the trust built between the animal and the staff members. 

“Some rhinos have it on the first day, but others are more stubborn,” he says. “You need to know which of your ’students’ respond to what and build that relationship and understanding with them.”

Conditioning our Cheetahs

When it comes to other species, like our cheetahs, conditioning looks a little different. Instead of training cheetahs to simply approach a fence, they are conditioned in an area of their enclosure known as a  “feed crush.” 

An example of a feed crush. It opens into the cheetah enclosure on the right, and allows care staff access on the left.

A feed crush is a smaller stall within an enclosure made out of fence panels with doors on each end. These doors open upwards, and can be operated independently to allow cats and staff members to move freely within the space without coming face to face. Despite the name,  this is a comfortable space that our cats associate with their daily meals. The feed crush is an invaluable resource for our carnivore team. Not only are medical exams less stressful in a crush, but safer for staff and cheetahs.

Versatile Tools

Jessica Rector, one of our animal care specialists, broke down a few of the procedures able to be performed using a feed crush. 

For weighing a cheetah, first the cat is shut out of the feed crush so they do not have access to it and a scale is set up inside of it. Next, a large wooden platform is placed on top of the scale for the cat to stand on. The cat is given access to the crush, where they walk in, stand on the scale and wait to be fed.

Blood draws are also able to be performed within the crush by using something called a push board. This holds a cheetah in between the space where their food is and the exterior door. Once they’re calm, the door can be opened slightly to give staff access to their tails where blood can be drawn.

A cheetah getting ready for a blood draw within the feed crush. Notice how their tail is perfectly positioned by the back door while the cat enjoys their meal.

Jess also explained that some cats, like our breeding females, are trained to enter other spaces within their enclosure besides crushes that allow vets to get ultrasounds and radiographs. This allows us to monitor the health of both mom and her cubs in a low-stress way. 

Staying Healthy

As you can see, working with different wild animals is not an easy or simple task. The type of species as well as the demeanor of the individual has to be taken into account. As Tim put it, “It’s kind of like having a classroom full of kids.” Some of the same logic we use in our education programs can be applied to our non-human residents. Despite the patience it takes to teach our animals these behaviors, we believe in finding the method that is not only the least stressful experience for our animals, but the safest for both them and staff members. By working together with our residents, we are not only able to care for them here, but contribute to research across the world, and conservation as a whole. 


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