When we talk about training here at Wingham Wildlife Park we aren’t talking about teaching the animals tricks. We use training in our everyday husbandry to look after the animals better, make sure they are in peek physical health, enrich their lives by getting them to think about what the keeper is asking them to do and also to build a relationship of trust with their keepers.

Training can be as simple as getting an animal to move outside or come into their house when asked to allow us to clean, but it can also be as complicated as allowing a keeper to take a blood sample rather than the animal having to be sedated to do so.

The training technique we use is called positive reinforcement training, whereby we reward the animal for doing the behaviour we ask. The animals always have the choice whether to take part or not, but most of the time they will to get extra treats and attention.

All of our training at Wingham has a purpose, whether that is to be able to look at different body parts, moving an animal to various parts of its enclosure, getting an animals weight or being able to perform medical related tasks.

I’m going to go through just a few of our animals training sessions which you may not know that we do, to give you a bit more information about how we accomplish these behaviours and why we do it.

Mai Xlang – Red Panda – Scale Training

Mai (as the keepers affectionately call her) is scale trained to allow the keepers to monitor her weight by keeping track of it. She is weighed once a week usually during one of the red panda talk sessions. If we were to just look at her it would be quite difficult to accurately assess her weight, because of all that gorgeous fur she has. Monitoring an animals weight can be extremely important as this can sometimes be the only indicator that they are unwell. A lot of species are very good at hiding when they are sick, because in the wild any weakness would be preyed upon by predators.

To start with, Mai was very nervous about the scales so we had to make them a good place to be by offering her, her favourite fruit when she was near them. The distance was then decreased until she was standing on the scales and then to stay still for long enough on them for the keepers to be able to read her weight.

Clarence & Brutus – Lions – Dental Check

Asking a lion to open its mouth on command could prove to be a difficult task, but with consistent training this has been accomplished. Just like with humans, animals can get cavities, broken teeth and also things stuck in between their teeth which could cause an issue. Keeping an eye on their oral health is just as important as looking at the rest of their physical appearance. If an animal were to have a tooth problem then this may prevent them from eating properly and could lead to other health issues such as weight loss or digestive issues. But how do you get a big cat to open their mouth when asked?

To start with you have to catch them opening their mouth, the keeper will say “open” at the same time and then reward them immediately. They will then start to associate opening their mouth with the command open, a hand signal and getting a reward for doing so. This can then be developed into the cat opening their mouth on command as shown in the video link with our Head of Carnivores, Hollie.

The aim for example would be, if a keeper were to notice a tooth issue, our vet would also be able to look at it using this method, and decide the course of action before needing to sedate them to give an examination.

Aldabra Tortoise – Target Training

Why would you need a tortoise to follow a target? The simple answer is it’s not easy to pick up a 250 kg animal when you need it to come indoors. Male Aldabra tortoises can weigh up to this amount when fully grown and although our male is a measly 70 kg currently (he’s still growing) he’s still far too heavy for a single reptile keeper to pick up. The Aldabra tortoises have access to their grass paddock in the summer, but we still need them to come inside at night time as it can get a little chilly. Therefore, we have started to train our tortoises to follow a target so that when they touch it they get their favourite treat (a piece of carrot or banana).

To start with the tortoises have to associate the target stick with food so the keepers begin with touching the tortoise on the nose with the target then giving them a treat straight away. The distance between the target and the tortoise is then increased so that they have to move their head towards the target and touch it with their nose before they get the treat. This then develops into the tortoise having to move to reach the target and therefore, the keepers can lead the tortoise back indoors without needing 4 keepers to come and pick it up.

This technique is demonstrated in the video by our Senior Reptile Keeper, Hannah. It can be quite a slow process with this species, but it’s definitely worth it.

Kayin – Mandrill – Body Inspection

Kayin, one of our male mandrills is also one of the lower ranking individuals in the group, but definitely the most intelligent. Kayin has taken to training like a duck to water and likes getting the extra attention.

It is important to get a closer inspection of some of our lower ranking individuals to make sure they are in good physical condition. We tend to check Kayin’s hands, feet, get him to stand up and with some extra training open his mouth (he is just in the process of learning this). His training is slightly different to some of the other individuals at the park in that we separate him away from the other mandrills to do his training. Being the lowest ranking he wouldn’t get a look in with all the others there so, we call him into their house and separate him in a bedroom.

The others still get some treats, but in the other bedrooms to keep them occupied and to not feel like they are missing out otherwise Kayin might get told off when we introduce him back to the group for getting extra food.

As you can see in the video he keeps looking around and this is to make sure that the others aren’t going to come in despite being in a locked bedroom on his own.

Below you can watch clips on our YouTube channel of some of the training sessions discussed in this blog.

If you wanted to see some of the training we do here at the park for yourself, some of our daily talks and feeds include this, particularly our otter feed. Plus, we have a training session with our chimpanzees every afternoon.

I hope that you enjoyed this short little introduction to some of our training here at Wingham Wildlife Park.

aldabra tortoise training at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent

About Ruth - Head Keeper

Ruth is the head keeper at Wingham Wildlife Park, having been with the park since 2008. When the park was first taken over all of the keepers looked after all of the species, and as such Ruth has a wide range of abilities with the animals here, giving her the right skill set as our head keeper. When she is out of the office (which is most of the time), she specialises in primates.