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The Training Game: Dispatches from Ariana, our 2022-23 Wildlife Apprentice

Every year, we welcome a new Wildlife Apprentice at CuriOdyssey to train alongside our Keepers and Wildlife Team. The Wildlife Apprenticeship ends with a final project. Former projects have included papers, presentations, and even a surprise dance routine at an all staff meeting. Our most recent Apprentice, Ariana, has just finished her year with us, and wrote about the experience:

Wildlife Apprentice Ariana scale training Drew, one of our North American Raccoons

Before coming to CuriOdyssey, I experienced animal training at previous facilities from hoof trimming to veterinary care. But I wanted to learn more. I wanted to not just observe training, but to participate in the activity myself. With my long term goal of being an animal keeper, I hoped that animal training would give me a better sense of a critical part of being a zookeeper and facilitate my interests in the field. 

This past year gave me many, many opportunities to grow and develop my animal husbandry skills. I learned to be quick on my feet and to be flexible when small changes arose in the work environment. I learned to muster up the courage to speak in front of the public whether they were 5 years old or 50 years old. I learned that not everything is going to happen according to plan, and that’s okay. But one of the most exciting and challenging projects was my journey of animal training. 

I started by simply observing the other keepers and occasionally assisting them. Whether it was Gunner, the river otter, getting weighed or Caro, the bobcat, preparing for an injection, I encouraged myself to do the best at the task I was given and to ask questions to clarify any action or behavior that was performed. In just a short amount of time, I knew that I wanted to learn more about the process of creating positive relationships between animals and keepers and execution of training behaviors. So when the apprentice project came around, I prepared myself to learn everything I could about animal training. 

After discussing what my project could be, I worked with my mentor, Carmen, to plan out my project. Ultimately, we decided on creating a training plan for Drew, the North American raccoon, and to have me administer a cooperative injection for his annual veterinary exam. The plan started with observing Carmen perform the injection training. The training involved three behaviors: Drew stepping into a chute, holding for palpation, and stepping back out of the chute. It was difficult to pick up, ensuring that my timing was accurate and deciding on when to call the bridge, which is a signal marking when an animal successfully performs a behavior it is asked by a trainer. 

As I continued to work on his behaviors, the process of guiding him through the chute to hold followed by the “out” cue to guide him out of the chute got easier. I sought feedback on how I was doing and continued to be consistent with how much I trained during the week. This ensured that Drew maintained trained behaviors up until his vet exam date. As I trained Drew more often, I eventually incorporated the vet tech, Kendra, into the equation as she was the one who would give Drew the injection the day of his exam. I was nervous at first because I did not have experience incorporating an additional person into the process. The first couple of tries were not smooth. Not only was I training Drew to hold long enough for an injection, but I added an additional cue where I would say, “touching” while Kendra acted out an injection by gently pressing on his hip. 

Vet Tech Kendra performs beak maintenance on Oro, a Golden Eagle

Based on my knowledge from watching other keepers injection train their animals, I mentally prepared myself and added the “touching” bridge. On some days, the training went well and other days my timing was off. Each week, I continued to make progress on his injection behavior both without and with the practice injection from Kendra. As Drew’s vet exam approached, I added an additional challenge: training with less food. Vet procedures often require an empty stomach for safety reasons related to anesthesia, and giving animals food rewards when they complete a behavior helps them stay motivated to train. Per Carmen, we used smelt juice to reward Drew with every successful behavior as practice for the actual day. I was curious if giving a smaller reward than kibble or meat would affect Drew’s behavior. I felt lucky discovering that Drew stayed interested in training sessions! As Drew’s injection date arrived, I continued to work with him, Kendra and the smelt juice. Each subsequent session we performed seemed easier than the last as I got the hang of the training process. On the day of the injection, I prepared everything I needed to set myself up for success. I started with a practice run with Kendra, and then again with the actual injection. We successfully gave Drew the injection and then it was time for the vet team to proceed with his health exam! 

If I described this experience in three words, it would be exciting, intimidating, and relieving. I was excited to take on this project because of my interest in animal training. I fulfilled a dream of mine to be able to work with an animal on a behavior that would be significant for its welfare. I was intimidated because I learned to work out challenges and setbacks with each new piece of the puzzle that I added. I didn’t know how Drew would react with Kendra present nor would I have guessed that he would still be motivated to train with less of his kibble and meat. Lastly, I was relieved when Drew and I collaboratively performed each step with ease on the day of his exam. Not only relieved that it was a success, but also knowing that I am more than capable of animal husbandry training!

Wildlife Apprentice Ariana with Yzma, a Swainson’s Hawk

This experience has motivated me to hone in more on my interests because I am always learning new and exciting feats. Sometimes I may fail and that’s okay, but each and every time I learn something new. With my newfound training experience, I am thrilled to be the first apprentice at CuriOdyssey to cooperatively train an animal for a vet exam, and to use my skills to continue animal training on my next animal keeper journey.

Ariana has recently been offered a permanent animal care position at Lindsay Wildlife Experience. It is a noteworthy accomplishment to have a position waiting at the end of your apprenticeship, and while we will miss her, we are so excited for this amazing next step in her career. Congratulations Ariana!

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1651 Coyote Point Drive
San Mateo, CA 94401
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CuriOdyssey is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Tax ID 94-1262434

Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The gold standard for animal care and welfare.
ASTC Member. Association of Science and Technology Centers.
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