Home to over 500 animals, the Sacramento Zoo provides a great opportunity to learn about wildlife from all over the world. Among these animals are approximately 40 that live behind the scenes. These are the Animal Ambassadors of the Zoo’s Interpretive Center (IC) who ignite a connection between the public and the natural world through participation in stage shows, animal encounters, media appearances and off-site programming with the Zoomobile. As the newest Education Specialist and zookeeper at the Sacramento Zoo, I’ve had the privilege of working with and getting to know these amazing animals over the past year.
One of my primary duties as an Education Specialist is working with the Animal Ambassadors to teach them new behaviors and maintain previously learned behaviors. All of the animals choose whether they want to participate or not, creating a positive training environment and leaving the animal more willing to participate and find the experience enriching. Being the newest member to the IC department, I have learned that not all training relationships blossom at the same speed and that it can take years to achieve a desired behavior, making patience a valuable skill.
My first few months were focused on getting to know the animals and their special diets, behavioral quirks, intellectual capacities, preferred enrichment and general care. I quickly learned that not all work boots are created equal, and could prompt extreme distaste from the Laughing Kookaburra, Foster. For several weeks I worked on creating a positive relationship with Foster by visiting with him frequently and, of course, bringing one of his favorite treats: meal worms. This allowed him to associate me (and my scary boots) with a positive experience (receiving meal worms) and create a relationship where one may not have initially existed.
A considerable amount of my time has also been devoted to building a relationship with the bobcat, Tolomaa. As Tolomaa is the first non-domestic cat I have worked with, I spent a lot of time understanding his personality and individual training protocols. In the beginning, I would sit near him, occasionally bringing in treat meat or one of his favorite stuffed toys. After some time, he started to sit beside me. As our relationship developed, I began to offer treats in return for successfully demonstrating behaviors (i.e. touching his nose to a target). Ultimately, the last few months of hard work have led to me working with Tolomaa as a full trainer in our Wildlife Stage Show. Be sure to visit me and the other Education Specialists, as well as the magnificent Animal Ambassadors at the Wildlife Stage Shows, Saturdays and Sundays at 11 am. Visit the Daily Education Programs for the schedule.