Often when people come across an animal that is working with a trainer here at the Houston Zoo, they see how much fun everyone is having. And it’s true – it is a lot of fun! Guests enjoy watching the keepers interact with the animals and the keepers love training – it’s one of the coolest parts of our job. Even the animals seem to enjoy themselves and it’s very stimulating for them. Because we use positive reinforcement training at the Houston Zoo, the animals choose to participate in training and it’s one of the most dynamic ways we can enrich them, both physically and mentally.
All fun aside, there’s a deeper purpose to a lot of the training we do here. When we train an animal to get on a scale, to climb in a kennel, or even voluntarily receive an injection, those are important behaviors – we call them husbandry behaviors – that help make the routine care our animals receive safe and much easier for everyone involved. This type of training is essential, and it can’t happen without…GRUB! Positive reinforcement training only works if there is something that motivates the animal to participate, and for most animals (including me!) delicious food is extremely motivating.
Recently I began caring for a new group of animals in the Children’s Zoo – banded mongoose! There are six of them, three males and three females. They are active, curious and fun to watch – if you haven’t seen them yet, stop by the McGovern Children’s Zoo – but there are several big challenges to caring for them. How do you weigh, medicate, or check on a very intelligent animal that has a burrow underground? How do you even tell them apart?! Training is the answer, so it’s a good thing for us that the mongooses are VERY food motivated.
The mongooses are omnivores just like us. They love to eat mice, chicks, meat, worms, crickets, and when they can’t find anything else, they’ll eat their salad (again, just like me!). We’ve used their love of food to train the females to come eat on one side of the exhibit and the males to eat on the other. Now when we need to get a good look at them to figure out who is who, we only have three to compare instead of all six at once. This is a huge help with medicating them and when we eventually teach them to get on a scale, it will help with that, too! Soon we will start using their favorite foods to encourage them to enter a kennel. Once they get comfortable with that it will be a piece of cake for us to move them at any time. That reduces stress for everybody!
When you give the Gift of Grub, you are giving much more than just food. You help us enrich the animals and make their lives healthier and better in so many ways. If you haven’t seen the mongoose in action yet make sure you stop by and watch them running, digging, and playing. With animals this rambunctious, I’m sure you’ll see why we’re glad for all the help we can get!
A gift of just $12 could provide 3 boxes of worms and $22 could deliver 3 boxes of crickets – two treats sure to please our mongooses! Visit the Grub Gift Shop to learn more about our annual grocery list and how you can give the Gift of Grub to the animals at the Houston Zoo. TXU Energy will double every donation made to the Gift of Grub campaign by December 31, dollar-for-dollar, up to $50,000! Don’t miss this opportunity for your contribution to have twice the impact on feeding your friends at the Zoo.