Zoo Keeper Skills – Operant Conditioning

Written by Kathy Watkins

Have you ever wondered what we do when a tiger has a sore tooth or a black bear has a stomach ache? With your dog, you can open his mouth or you can pick your cat up and carry her to the vet. It can get kind of tricky when you work with carnivores who are built to eat and hunt. We have to be very careful when we work around these dangerous predators so we use operant conditioning training, allowing the animals to voluntarily participate in their care. Our job is to make sure we give the best care possible and to ensure everyone stays safe and that takes a lot of teamwork.

We have a leopard who was trained to allow us to put ointment on a sore on his tail thanks to Ben’s training plan. When our Africa Painted Dog’s were getting ready to move to their new home, Tori trained them to go into the crate for a smooth drive. Our clouded leopard will let us get images of her belly thanks to Danielle’s work. With Cortney’s help, bears have been trained to accept the injection that helps them to fall asleep so we can safely treat them. As you can imagine, moving a 545 pound lion takes some team work! Keepers like Jordan and Paul have been crucial in helping with lion sedations because they are great about staying calm, jumping in quickly when needed and they are comfortable holding up the head of a sleeping lion as we move them to our state-of-the-art vet hospital. Talk about brave! Even the newest additions to the carnivore team, Alicia and Megan have been a huge help when it comes to assisting the vets during procedures and stepping in when needed. By working together with multiple departments in the zoo, the carnivore team provides world class care to the meat-eating animals that call the Houston Zoo home. As the carnivore supervisor, I am thankful for the hard work and dedication of the carnivore staff, and I am lucky to be a part of such a great team.



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