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