The Little Turtle That Could

“What is your favorite animal that you work with at the Lehigh Valley Zoo?” is a question that I get asked pretty frequently. “Cody, our 23 year-old western box turtle” is not the answer that most people expect. Of course I love getting to work with our sloth, raccoon, and owls, but Cody is a very special turtle and she’s paving the way for the future of our education department.

As many zoo education departments across the country do when preparing for programs; animals are chosen, taken from their enclosures, packed, and off they go. During programs, it’s not uncommon to see ambassador animals presented “in-hand”. This is something to which our animals are accustomed and don’t seem to mind. But this system does not quite align with our goal to move toward allowing for more choice and control for our animals. Giving animals choice and control is something for which most zoos strive, but sometimes, that is easier said than done, especially when it comes to reptiles.

Recently, we revamped our entire training program, and we knew we wanted to create training plans that aligned with our goal of giving more opportunities for choice and control. When we were discussing the animals that would be good training candidates, Cody immediately came to my mind. She was curious, bold, food motivated, and loved attention. If you’re a turtle and you want extra attention from your keepers and handlers, how do you get it? Cody came up with the perfect answer: flipping herself and waiting for us to come to her rescue. Although a bad habit, I couldn’t help but find it kind of…endearing. Either way, I thought a training plan would benefit Cody in more ways than one.

I got the okay to write my first ever training plan. Within several weeks, Cody was officially target trained. It was exhilarating for me to achieve this, and with a turtle nonetheless. Cody’s training did not stop there, though. She now voluntarily crates herself and is learning a new “follow” behavior. I was really hoping that training would put a stop to Cody flipping herself and… it has not (the girl just seems to love attention). Sooner rather than later, though, Cody will be able to exercise choice and control with regards to participation in programs.

Her choice begins when she is presented with her crate and makes the decision whether or not she would like to get in it. During programs, her new follow behavior will allow her to be presented on the floor versus “inhand”. All the while, her crate will be left open nearby and she’ll always have the choice to get back in it. When we initially started moving toward offering more choice and control to our animals, I do not think anyone thought that our western box turtle would be the first animal to achieve so much choice and control. Of course Cody is the little turtle that could, did, and will continue to achieve the goals we have set, and she is paving the way for all of our other ambassador animals.

This small success set the tone within our department, and with a little help from our new Education Lead Trainer, we have training plans for over half of our ambassador animal collection. This may be one small step in the grand scheme of things, but it is one giant leap for the animals of the education department at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. 

Written by Alana Roth
Education Specialist
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA

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Featured in Winter 2021 Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group Newsletter