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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: Zoomility - Keeper Tales of Training with Positive Reinforcement

"The bottom line? You can't push an elephant around."

Few aspects of zoo animal care have changed so dramatically over the course of my career as training.  While animals keepers have always trained their charges, the reasons for and methods of training have changed enormously.  Whereas zoo animals were once trained to perform circus-like tricks (think bears on balls and chimps participating in tea parties), they are now conditioned to perform behaviors to assist zookeepers and vets in their care and management – entering crates, moving from enclosure to enclosure, presenting body parts for inspection.  Likewise, whereas training was once a matter of punishment, it is now more likely to be done with positive reinforcement.

It is the use of training through positive reinforcement that is the subject of Dr Grey Stafford’s book, Zoomility: Keeper Tales of Training with Positive Reinforcement.  The title, a play on the words “zoo” and “humility”, sum up the author’s philosophy.  He states that training in the past has been too dominated by the egos of the trainers, trying to impose their wills on the animals.  Animals, of course, are unlikely to always do what we want them to, which then causes trainers to become frustrated, their actions then becoming more confusing to the animals.  Stafford advocates the use of positive reinforcement (the offer of pleasing stimulus, or rewards, such as food treats, toys, or affection) to the animals.  His underlying message is that training should be a respectful partnership between keeper and kept; instead of thinking in terms of commands, we should think of “requests.”

Of all aspects of zoo animal care – enrichment, nutrition, breeding, exhibit design – I’ve always considered training to be my weakest area, so I sought out this book with a great deal of enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, I found it to be something of a disappointment.  It’s not terribly long, which is fine since what it does contain seems to be mostly repetition of Stafford’s idea of “Zoomility” (which I have presented in the second paragraph of this review… you’re welcome). 

Shortly after finishing this book for the first time, I set about a training project at work.  Try though I might, I couldn’t think of anything I took away from the book that seemed particularly helpful or relevant to my training.  The message was “be patient and treat the animals with respect.”  I was already there.  Sure, there are a few case studies/suggesting protocols for how to start training specific behaviors (such as crate training), but they were pretty basic.  I would have liked to have discussed more about the differences between working with different groups of animals – the challenges of training an aggressive chimp vs a flighty gazelle, for instance.

This book would have been very useful a generation or so ago, back when the school of zoo training was undergoing it’s transition from old show type performances to new behavioral conditioning.  These days, it doesn’t seem to offer anything profound.  Stafford talks a lot about punishment-obsessed keepers, which feels like something of a straw-man argument, seeing how few of those I’ve actually met (and almost all of those are older individuals who are probably nearing retirement from the field).

 Don’t get me wrong, “Zoomility” is a great concept – it just doesn’t need a whole book (even a small one) devoted to explaining it.

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