Recycling Raccoon? If She Can Do, It So Can You!

Meeko, the education raccoonMeeko – Education Raccoon

Meeko, the nine-year-old raccoon is an important member of our education department. She plays a critical role in helping our guests connect to animals native to Pennsylvania. Through our Animal Encounters program, we aim to teach guests about the importance of keeping wild animals wild. Due to their charismatic nature, many of a raccoon’s behaviors help guests in our program feel connected to the animals, such as having advanced use of their front paws.

Meeko the Raccoon reaching across a stump and using her paws, displaying her dexterityRaccoons have excellent control of their paws and extended digits. They use their front paws to manipulate objects, including placing the item in the water to allow the extra receptors on their paws to better feel the objects. Raccoons have extra nerve endings that run into their paws in order to get a heightened sense of touch. With nimble digits and sensitive pads, raccoon forepaws are extraordinary tools for survival. As opportunistic omnivores, they will eat anything they can get their paws on, so it’s an advantage to use their forepaws to test items and make sure it’s safe to eat. One of Meeko’s favorite snacks is super worms.

Like most of the animals at the zoo, Meeko is part of our animal training program. The goal of these programs is to positively impact the animals’ welfare while building a relationship between the animal and their caretakers. A trainer will develop a list of different behaviors that will keep the animal both mentally and physically stimulated, some may even help our keepers take care of them. There is a wide range of behaviors that an animal can learn that depends on the animal’s intellect and physical ability. The first behaviors we begin with are, target, station, and crate. These behaviors allow the animal to voluntarily participate in their care. Trainers can target animals to different areas of their habitats, have them station to a specific location, or have them voluntarily crate to make any transportation a more positive experience. After getting the basics, animal trainers can build off those skills and work on more advanced behaviors.

The newest behavior Meeko is learning is called Recycle. The goal of this behavior is for Meeko to use her front paws to move a plastic water bottle into a recycling bin. Meeko will be displaying her natural behaviors by using her forepaws to move objects as she would out in nature. It also provides mental stimulation as she has to carefully move the bottle to the appropriate place. She is exercising mentally and physically, increasing her overall welfare here at the zoo. While the behavior is not complete, Meeko is getting closer to understanding Recycle and moving the bottle into the recycle bin.

If a Raccoon can do it, so can you –

With 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, the Lehigh Valley Zoo’s Know Plastics Campaign, in partnership with PA Virtual Charter School, has never been more important. As marine life interacts with the plastics in the oceans, there is an increasing number of plastic pieces ending up inside of animals, since they often mistake it for food. One example of this is sea turtles that commonly mistake plastic bags floating in the water for jellyfish. As more than 700 marine species are impacted by plastic, the best thing we can do is reduce the amount we use and recycle the plastic that we cannot avoid.

Single-use plastic is a common occurrence in our lives. It can come in many forms but is usually found in packaging, service ware, straws, bags, bottles, wrappers, and more. There are many alternatives for these items that can help reduce the amount of plastic used in our everyday life.

Image showing plastic alternatives, including: substitute a reusable water bottle for a single use plastic bottle; substitute wax paper wrap for plastic wrap; substitute a reusable snack bag for a single use plastic zip bag; substitute a reusable shopping bag for single use plastic bags

When reusable alternatives are not an option, reusing and recycling single-use plastic is important. Many objects can be reused multiple times before properly discarding them. At the zoo, there are many ways we try and reuse items to give them a second life. Paper and cardboard products can be used for animal enrichment; hiding food, scents, favorite objects and snacks inside provides a great puzzle for the animals. We can also reuse washed plastic containers from items such as peanut butter and coffee to create puzzle feeders for our animals.

Every little step taken can go a long way. Join Meeko, take the pledge, and start feeling great about saving the environment. Visit our #KNOWPLASTICS page

Written by Dani DiMarco
Education Specialist
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA

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Listen to Meeko and Dani’s recent feature on 91.3 WLVR NPR

Cooperative Care at Lehigh Valley Zoo

What is Cooperative Care?
If you have a pet, you may know what it’s like to take an animal to the vet for routine checkups or procedures. This can be an upsetting experience for some animals that are unaccustomed to being poked and prodded and asked to stand still on a scale.

At the zoo, our animals need care in just the same way. Each animal gets routine checkups, or may require added care to their day to day lives for a number of reasons.

To make sure that our animals receive the best care, we use an idea called Cooperative Care. This simply means that our animals are trained for various behaviors or handling scenarios so that, during husbandry procedures, the experience is positive and voluntary.

What Types of Behaviors are Trained?
In training situations, we use the term “behavior” to indicate what action we would like the animal to perform or complete. All training within our zoo is voluntary, meaning that the animal has the option of whether or not to participate in the training session.

Most of our animals truly enjoy training. It provides them with complex opportunities for problem solving and mental stimulation, and they are reinforced with something positive, most often a food item.

Behaviors that are trained for medical procedures include scale training, where an animal is asked to step onto a scale so we can obtain an accurate body weight, or injections, so that medications can be administered easily and without stressful restraint Other common behaviors to be trained are hoof trims, or open mouth behaviors so that an animal’s teeth can be checked routinely.

Otters and Cooperative Care
Cooperative care is beneficial for not only our animals, but for our keepers as well. This is most apparent when working with animals considered to be dangerous, such as large cats and even otters. Otters are a carnivorous species, with exceptional strength, and as such must always be cared for with keeper safety in mind. This means reduced contact, and by extension, reduced ability to be totally hands on during procedures.

We give resident otters opportunities to participate in behaviors that aid in their own procedures, and aid in keeping our keepers safe. Voluntary injection behaviors are just one way they can participate in a veterinary checkup. Our otter, Luani, is also trained to stand on a scale so that we can monitor his weight, and therefore, his diet and exercise or other things that might influence his health.

Luani is also trained to enter into his own transport tunnel for an easy trip from our exhibit to the clinic should he ever need extra care. Additionally, if we ever need to follow up on any particular health condition, such as minor scrapes and bumps that we all are prone to, we train for body positioning cues that allow us to administer topical ointments to paws or limbs.

It’s no secret, doctors’ appointments and dentist visits are not the most fun ways to spend a morning. What is even less fun, though having no say in how you get to participate in an appointment. That is why training is key.

Training allows for keepers and animals to build trust with one another, nurture a positive relationship, and teach and learn behaviors that improve quality of care. This only truly works of course, if animals have the ability to say yes or no to a training session.

Otters, for example, can be just as stubborn as a human. If they do not have interest in participating in a training session, there is very little one can do to change their mind. What a keeper can do is maintain patience, and simply wait to see if an otter would like to participate in a few minutes, when they’ve had a chance to wake up, or swim, or groom their fur. We like to refer to this as choice and control. Any animal under our care should be afforded both choice in their activities and control in their environments.

Positivity is also necessary, because otters have a keen sense of what their keepers are feeling. If a keeper is frustrated or impatient, Luani would certainly pick up on this and feel less inclined to participate in something that is supposed to be enjoyable and important.

Reinforcement is also a must. If an animal doesn’t have a good reinforcer, in Luani’s case, a delicious fish, he may not necessarily be as eager to train.

Regardless of whether an animal ultimately chooses to engage in a training session, they are never negatively reinforced. They will always receive exceptional care, love, and fish.

Written by Caitlin Keim
Zookeeper & Enrichment Coordinator
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA

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