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Monday, August 5, 2013

Mind of a Reptile

The most recent issue of Animal Keeper’s Forum (the journal of the American Association of Zookeepers) featured an article on training.  There’s nothing terribly unusual about this – virtually every issue of AKF features one.  What made this one special, however, was that the animals being trained weren’t primates or carnivores or ungulates – they weren’t even mammals.  Or birds, for that matter.  They were false water cobras, a venomous colubrid from Southeast Asia, at the National Zoo.

I’m sure that plenty of visitors – as well as a decent number of non-herp keepers – would have a hard time imagining a snake as being trainable.  Many people probably imagine snakes as nasty little creatures that slither around looking for people to bite.  In reality, I’ve seen plenty of examples of keepers training snakes and other reptiles.   Giant tortoises can be trained to shift from outdoor exhibits to winter holding (which, considering how much they can weigh, is far preferable to carrying them).  Crocodilians can be trained to station for feeding demonstrations, helping keepers stay safe while ensuring that every animal is fed the proper amount.  Monitor lizards and iguanas can be trained to walk on harnesses.  At the most basic level, education reptiles are trained/conditioned to accept handling for programs and demonstrations.

A generation or two ago, the concept of animal intelligence was still highly controversial.  Now, it seems that we are constantly finding out that virtually every species is smarter than we thought it was.  Some – primates, psittacines, marine mammals – aren’t that surprising, especially to anyone who has spent time with them.  Others have astonished people.  Chickens were once considered the epitome of stupidity – mindless balls of meat wrapped in feathers.   Many a chicken keeper, however, can attest to their surprising intelligence.

The more that we understand how intelligent reptiles are, the more we must reexamine how we care for them in a zoo setting.  Reptile exhibits are generally far smaller than those of mammals or birds of a similar size.  Granted, reptiles move a lot less than warm-blooded animals (both in captivity and in the wild), but who is to say that larger enclosures couldn’t lead to a broader range of activities and behaviors?  Few reptile departments have environmental enrichment programs for their charges.   If they are intelligent enough to respond to training, who is to say that they can’t benefit from enrichment also?   It could also potentially mean a change in the way that we manage zoo reptile collections; giving more space and devoting more resources to each individual would mean either 1) hiring more staff (unlikely in any economic forecast) or 2) reducing collection size, which can in turn have negative impacts on conservation and research programs.

There is also the question of keeper safety.  Venomous reptiles are considered some of the most dangerous zoo animals, in large part because – unlike bears and big cats – keepers often must work them directly.  Some zoo reptile departments have staff cultures that specialize in hot snakes, whereas other zoos shun them altogether.   Some venomous snakes – Aruba Island rattlesnakes, for instance – are AZA program species, which could always use more institutional support.  If mambas, cobras, and other potentially dangerous snakes could be trained to shift, or enter squeeze tubes, then much of the risk of working this species could be reduced.

This is a lot to extrapolate from a single article in AKF and a few other anecdotes.  I am not realistically expecting to see the herp world change before my eyes in the immediate future.  Still, it’s pretty exciting to think of what the future can hold.  At any rate, it reminds us that our animals – all of them – are a whole lot smarter than a lot of people give them credit for being.


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  2. If anyone needed any further proof of the unexpected intelligence of reptiles, behold - tool use in crocodilians!