Interview with Omaha Zoo Keeper, Jillian Voss

Whenever my husband and I visit the 130-acre Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, we encounter new experiences. Case in point, this past spring, we saw lemurs being trained to respond to a clicker. The purpose of such training, known as animal husbandry, is practical. Through such training, zoo keepers can teach wild animals to accept medical examinations and transportation in a crate. Andy and I were so fascinated with the demonstration that we sought opportunities throughout the rest of our visit to see other animals being trained too.

At the elephant training sessions, we talked with Jillian Voss, who became a keeper at the Henry Doorly Zoo in May of 2016. Caring for the elephants was new to her and others, as the elephants had only arrived in March 2016. But Jillian believed her previous experience of working with marine animals had given her the skills to “help support the animals as we navigated building a new department”. I appreciate that Jillian took time following our zoo visit to answer questions about her training experiences with the zoo’s elephants.

Something people can forget about training is that compliance always relies on the animal. If the animal isn’t motivated on a particular day, then one simply tries another day. When we visited the elephants, they were feeling the heat, and were more interested in bathing and eating then being trained. Hence, my photos are simply of these majestic creatures, rather of training in action.

ALLISON: What animals do you most often train?

JILLIAN: As an Elephant Keeper, we only care for the seven African Elephants. Each of the keepers can work with any of the animals when moving an animal to a new space. For training sessions, keepers are assigned a specific animal to work with; this ensures consistency when that animal is learning new behaviors. Once the behavior is fully trained, the primary keeper would pass off the behavior to other crew members to maintain. I work with Warren, and it has been incredibly exciting to see him learning new husbandry behaviors that help facilitate his care.

ALLISON: What kind of training does the Omaha Zoo do? And why?

JILLIAN: The training of the animals at the Henry Doorly Zoo is via operant conditioning. Mainly meaning we rely on positive reinforcement to help teach the animal husbandry or medical behaviors. This allows us to teach the animals to voluntarily participate in their own care! Each experience is designed to be reinforcing in some manner, and our job as the trainer is to learn what our animals find reinforcing or enjoyable. For some species that could be access to a certain area, maybe a specific type of food, or even tactile reinforcement like a scrub brush on the side. In the elephant barn, the elephants enjoy a wide array of produce during training sessions.

ALLISON: When did the Omaha Zoo start doing this training with its animals? How did it get started? And how did zoos handle animals before they changed how they worked with animals?

JILLIAN: My career at the zoo has only been about a year now, so I don’t have firsthand accounts on the previous methods of management. However based off reading about the industry country wide, animal management, enrichment, and training programs are really growing. Focus on animal welfare is incredibly important, and teaching the public about the work we do further fosters the support of institutions nationwide. Institutions are throwing more focus towards developing the training programs with the animals in their care, because it truly is amazing how staff and animals can work together to achieve the ability to provide the highest level of care with the lowest level of stress on the animal.

ALLISON: Describe a recent or favorite training session.

JILLIAN: I love every single minute I work with Warren. He is incredibly smart and seeing him progress in his training is very rewarding. My favorite session was the moment he seemed to fully understand turning around to then present his back foot. I had been struggling on the best way to shape his turn and, after a lot of attempts, we were slowly making progress. I feel like once I got better about where I needed to toss the reinforcement so he could reach it without moving or stepping to the side, he finally received the clear communication he needed to understand that I was looking for him to stand facing away from me without shifting his body around. From there, it was super quick for him to learn how to get his back feet up and through the training port.

ALLISON: Why are the advantages of clicker training in a zoo?

JILLIAN: By using a marker, like a clicker or whistle, you are able to communicate to the animal the exact moment they have completed the desired behavior. It also removes an element of ‘human error’ because no matter who is holding that clicker it will sound the same.

ALLISON: Some pet owners use clicker training with their pets. Are there any differences in doing clicker training with a zoo animal and a domesticated pet?

JILLIAN: The way I train and work with Warren is similar to the way I train with my dogs. At work we use a whistle for a bridge and we also use a verbal ‘good’. At home with my dogs I just use a verbal ‘good’. Same principles in both scenarios!

ALLISON: One difference that occurs to me is that in a zoo environment, there are precautions one must take to avoid injury. What are some of those? Does it make it more challenging?

JILLIAN: Depending on the area, the procedures vary. In our area, we work in teams of at least two full-time keepers when working with an animal or near a space that elephants have access to. All of the work we do is through protected contact which means at all times there is a barrier between us and elephants. In order to accomplish training husbandry behaviors, we teach the animal to first present the desired part of their body through training ports, or doors so that we can then examine them. For example, foot care is a certainly a priority with elephants. In order to properly examine their feet the animals stand and lift the desired foot up and though an open panel- resting it on a block. This allows us to safely examine and ensure the animals are healthy.

ALLISON: How do you come up your ideas for training animals? Is training animals an established field and so everything is provided to you? Or do trainers talk and learn from each other?

JILLIAN: While there may be slight differences between facilities there is a general understanding of what behaviors to train for husbandry purposes. For example, facilities with elephants train for foot work, voluntary blood draws, etc. There may be subtle differences in cues or how it is trained but generally there are guidelines on what elephants in AZA facilities need to know. Training is typically species specific, but at the end of the day the animals often learn the behaviors needed to give the best possible care. Much of that includes communication with professionals at other zoos, workshops, and researching as much as you can.

ALLISON: Has your experiences at the zoo influenced your training with them? And vice-versa?

JILLIAN: My pets are only trained on the normal sit/stay/come type things, but I often find myself thinking about progressing their training to include things they might encounter at the vet. It certainly would make it less stressful on them as they are rather anxious dogs to begin with. I think working in a zoo has shown me different approaches of training and some of them I have tried at home with great success. Much of it boils down to understanding the animal and what THEY find reinforcing.

Editor’s Note: On September 7, Warren, one of the zoo’s most beloved elephants, died during a procedure to repair a cracked tusk. The Journal Star reported that elephant keepers had noticed small cracks in Warren’s tusk in May and that zoo veterinarians were concerned the cracks could spread and cause an infection. The plan had been to add a protective metal cap on the end of the tusk to prevent further damage. Twenty minutes into the procedure, however, Warren stopped breathing and attempts to revive the elephant were unsuccessful. This article is a tribute to Warren.

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