Training the Animals in Your Life

Animal Behavior

  • Rumley and Boudreaux sittin' in a tree

    Here's a video of the first time that Rumley and Boudreaux saw each other. Boudreaux is still contagious so he can't meet Rumley yet. You can see them both wagging their tails and then you can see Rumley turn and bark at me. He's super angry that I won't open the door for him so that he can play with Boudreaux. I'm such a mean mom :( 

    Unfortunately, we still have to wait a couple of weeks before Boudreaux is completely in the clean. Once we get these two together though, I think they will be a dynamic duo! What do you think? 

  • Memory and Recognition In A Steer

    Memory and Recognition In A Steer

    The image above is Zamir giving me a "kiss" after almost three years.

    My sweet, sweet boy remembered me! It has been three years since I was his trainer, but the last several times I have visited the Miniature Zebu steer named Zamir that I used to work with, he has showed major signs of remembering me. 

    I have recently returned to The Houston Zoo after working in a law firm for three years. During those three years, the only time I had to visit the Zoo were Saturdays which are the most crowded day of the week. When I would go visit Zamir on Saturdays, I would call his name and sometimes he would look at me. He would swing his head up, his eyes would get big and he would look straight at me. But then he would go back to eating his hay without coming over. I thought this was because I wasn't wearing a zoo uniform and so he no longer recognized me. I should mention that Zamir generally does not let the public reach over the fence and touch him.

    Since returning to the Zoo, I am able to go visit Zamir on Friday evenings after work which are considerably less crowded. A few weeks ago, my husband met me at the Zoo after work on a Friday and we went to visit Zamir. I now work in an office at the Zoo and don't wear a Zoo uniform. Because Zamir had started ignoring me, I wasn't even going to attempt to call out to him until my husband encouraged me to try. I called out his name in the tone that I always used to say it years ago and Zamir swung his head around and looked straight at me as if to say "hey, what's up?" He came straight over and stuck his nose over the fence as if not a day had passed since our last meeting. He let me scratch and pet him for at least twenty minutes. I had to see if he remembered a couple of his old behaviors (shhh don't tell my zookeeper friends!) so I tried "kiss" and "target". He did both right away and kept looking at me as if to say "Where's the bread?" Zamir's rewards are bread or scratches. 

    I thought that maybe this was a one time occurance so I waited two weeks and then went back. I walked up to the fence and called out "Zamiiir" and he immediately swung his head around and stuck his nose over the fence to get to me. He let me scratch under his chin (his favorite spot) and stayed there for at least twenty minutes again. It made my week! I really think it had a lot to do with the fact that it is less crowded. When crowds are around Zamir is unwilling to come towards the fence because he knows that several people will try to touch him. When there are less crowds, he is willing to come over and let me scratch him for a long time because he knows me. It's not the Zoo uniform that he recognizes, it is me. I can't tell you how important those relationships are between an animal and trainer!

    We'll leave off with one of my favorite pictures of Zamir and I from several years ago when I was still his trainer. 

    Zamir giving me a "kiss"

  • Pictures with Parrots

    Pictures with Parrots





    The pictures above show my husband and I posing with a Macaw on our recent trip to Key West, Florida. I have to admit that I was completely against paying to have my picture taken with the bird when I first saw the man walking the streets in Key West. My first thought was that the man was exploiting the bird to make a profit and that I have worked with Macaws and couldn't possibly need to pay to spend time with one.

    I was so wrong! A friend of ours was walking with us and coerced us into posing to have our picture taken. The owner of the bird showed us his USDA license and spent at least twenty minutes with us just talking about his birds. I left thinking that these birds actually have a pretty great life compared to most parrots that are just left in a cage all day.

    This man had these parrots extremely well trained, in fact, I've never worked with a macaw (I've worked with four different individuals) that wouldn't try to bite someone at least occasionally. This bird was very calm and gladly sat on our shoulders or our heads. His owner gave him a signal and he knew how to put his beak to your cheek for the photo.

    The man also knew his birds well enough to know that one of his birds liked to be out at night, while the other got agitated at night and did much better during the day. The man would keep each bird out for a couple of hours and then switch it out for some rest.

    With these birds being this man's major source of income he most likely took very good care of them. The fact that the birds get so much socialization and see so much activity in a day has to make for a better life than being stuck in a cage somewhere.

    The man charged $15 for his time (I paid him $20 but probably would have paid him more if I had any more cash on me) and it was well worth it. He is able to educate people about parrots all day.

    I know that there are plenty of people out there that would be completely against something like this but I just wanted to share that you should probably look into something before you judge.

  • Rythmic Ability In A California Sea Lion

    This video is absolutely amazing. While it is enjoyable and comical to watch this sea lion 'dance' to the music, it also is a great finding for modern science and animal behaviorists. Until this study, animal behaviorists have maintained that the only animals that are able to keep a beat are humans and animals capable of voice mimicry. This would include parrots and some other birds. This study shows that other animals are capable of recognizing a beat in music.

    What this says to me is that we have been asking questions of animals that they do not understand. Once this sea lion, named Ronan, was taught to bob its head to one song, it quickly caught on and was able to bob its head to multiple songs with multiple different beats. Sea lions do not grow up learning how to 'dance' from other sea lions, so how can humans expect them to 'dance' without being taught?

    I think that if the people doing these studies can figure out new ways to let the animals know what we are asking of them, that we will quickly find that animals are much smarter than scientists once thought.

    To read more about this study and how it was performed, click here.

  • The Cost of Working with Animals

    Today's post was inspired by an article written by David Segal for the New York Times. This article is long but it contains a lot of valuable information for those considering becoming a vet. Click here for the full article.

    I think that it is is extremely sad that anyone that wants to work with animals gets paid so little. The cost of becoming a vet is extremely high while the starting salaries are relatively average for the general work force. DVMs are coming out of school with their debt to income ratio at 3:1. That is insane.

    Photo courtesy of wikicommons

    In the article, Segal states that the need for vets is declining in this country. While there are communities that are in desperate need of vets, most of the people in those communities are unable to afford vet care. A vet can see a need in a small, rural community and move there to open a practice, only to find out that the people coming to see them cannot afford to pay. I'm sure that the vet wants to help and offer their services for free, but with student loan debt approaching $300,000, they are not really in a position to do so. This reminds me of the book Water for Elephants, when the main character is left with nothing after his parents die because his dad was a vet and had been accepting vegetables from people's gardens for payment.

    I think there needs to be a total overhaul of all animal related jobs. Choosing to work with animals should not be a financial death sentence. Sure, you can choose not to go to school and try to get a job working at a zoo (not as a vet) but most job postings nowadays specify that a bachelor's degree is preferred and desired. With the amount of competition for all zoo jobs, it might take a while to land a zoo job without a degree. The reality is that most zoo professionals are highly educated, highly skilled individuals. Long gone are the days when zookeepers were all burly men hired only to do physical labor. The zookeeping profession now involves daily animal training, enrichment and behavioural studies as well as knowing the warning signs of animal illnesses.

    If you are able to come out of school with no debt then you can probably survive on these salaries. I know that people with debt still survive on these salaries but they often have credit collectors knocking on their door. Personally, I don't want to just survive, I want to get ahead and therefore had to leave the zoo profession, at least until I get my student loans paid off. People working with animals either need to be paid more or there needs to be more education about not taking out student loans for school. Something has got to change.

  • Annual Eye Exam

    So when I went to Texas A&M I had a Wildlife class that required us to volunteer at the Texas A&M sheep and goat center. This is a facility where they raise livestock for experimental purposes. Now before you start picturing three headed goats, let me explain that it's not that kind of facility. They conduct research here to help the animals and the livestock raising process. For example, they study how cattle-moving techniques can be improved to cause less stress to the animals. They also do genetic testing. 

    One day I got to witness someone doing an experiment for their thesis. This particular experiment involved blowing a puff of air into a goat's eye. The goat was strapped in to a grooming stand with a tiny tube aimed at its eye. The maching would let out a beeping sound and then blow a tiny puff of air through the tube. The purpose of the experiment was to measure the reaction time of the goat and to see if it ever learned to associate the beeping sound with the puff of air and learn to close its eye from the beep alone. This was a variation of the Pavlov's Dogs experiment. 

    I remember watching this goat and thinking that I would hate to have that done to me. My eyes are so sensitive anyway that I can't imagine having a puff of air blown into them over and over. I didn't realize that they do this to humans, until I went to my first eye doctor's appoitment. 

    As a test against glaucoma they make you put your face in this machine that blows a puff of air into your eye and then measures the pressure to make sure you don't have glaucoma. I am absolutely horrible at sitting still and not blinking for this machine! As soon as I realized what was going to happen my brain just went into overdrive and I kept asking myself why I would willingly put my head in this machine and keep my eyes open. "Are you stupid?" I asked myself. "Why would you sit here like that goat and let them cause your eyes pain?". 

    The attendant tried over and over and after about 8 tries we finally got readings from both eyes. When I went back for my appointment the next year, it was even worse. I was nervous just going into the room where this air puff machine was. I couldn't sit still and kept involuntarily backing away. She finally had to bring someone else into the room and let them try. We did better when she let me close my eyes until she was ready to press the button. 

    I don't know where I'm going with this story but I just wanted to share that I felt like a goat at my eye exam. and that my wildlife education has ruined glaucoma testing for me. 

  • How to Weigh Your Animals with Little Stress

    Weight is often the best indicator of health in an animal. In some species, you will notice a change in their weight way before you notice that they aren't eating as much as they used to. A primary reason for a change in appetite or weight is usually some sort of health issue.

    So how do you weigh a porcupine for example? How do you weigh an 800 pound steer? This is an example of a husbandry behavior. You are training the animal to participate in their own health care so that there is as little stress to them as possible. You want for standing on a scale to become an everyday habit.

    Let's start with the porcupine. This is actually a multi-step process that I am going to speed through. First of all you need a large scale, but even when you have a large scale it is difficult to ensure that the porcupine is all the way on the scale everytime. You need something on the scale that the porcupine can stand on. We have found that a large dog carrier works well. You put the kennel on the scale and ask the porcupine to step into it. Then subtract the weight of the kennel from the weight of the porcupine in the kennel equals weight of porcupine. Obviously you first have to get the porcupine used to going into the kennel before you ever place it on the scale. You can do this by placing its food inside the kennel for several weeks. Don't mess with the kennel once the porcupine is inside. Let it learn that no harm comes to it while it is in the kennel.

    In the image below, the kennel is sitting on the scale and the porcupine is about to crawl into it. 

    You can also train a steer to walk on a large piece of plywood that is placed over a scale. The steer will most likely be afraid of the large dark thing on the ground. First just place the plywood in the enclosure for several days (make sure to give the animal plenty of room to get away if it wants to). After a few days you can start to throw a few bites of bread on the plywood so that the animal has to touch the plywood to eat it. It will start to learn that nothing bad happens when it is near the plywood. Ask the animal to step on the plywood by targeting over the wood. Step by step the steer will learn that nothing bad happens when it steps on the plywood. You can place the scale under the plywood and make it a daily routine to step on the plywood.

    Watch the video below to see an example of scale training.


    Scale Training with a Miniature Zebu Steer from Brittany Mead on Vimeo.

    The steer in the video above was terrified of the plywood. It took several weeks for him to even go near it or to go in the stall with it. The video above shows tremendous progress where he is ready for us to place the scale under the plywood and weigh him.

  • Attwater Prairie Chickens

    Have you ever heard of an Attwater Prairie Chicken? Did you know that they are highly endangered? They used to live in the plains of Texas but are almost extinct.

    Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and The Houston Zoo are both trying to save them. There also is a national conservation center outside of Houston, Texas that works to save them.

    Here are some rare photos of baby Attwater Prairie Chickens. Aren't they cute?

    The birds above are pictured in their very safe environment. They have to be kept this way because they are easily frightened and injure themselves when they go into a panic. There could be no loud noises in the prairie chicken rearing area and the keepers had to take special caution when a storm came through. The prairie chickens would start to panic and thrash around until they injured themselves. I remember the keepers being so upset when one prairie chicken somehow ingested a stick that killed him. 

    If the prairie chickens make it to adulthood, the idea is to release them to the refuge outside of Houston. They are making great strides in this area. 

  • Elephant and Dog- Best Buds

    This brought tears to my eyes. This elephant and dog have become best friends. This speaks to the depth of animals, they are pretty amazing. 

    Also, this woman is living the dream. An elephant sanctuary, how wonderful! 

  • Why Is My Dog Attacking My Other Dog?

    Dog Eat Dog?

    A friend of mine is having a problem with one of her dogs attacking her other dog. She came to me to ask why this might be happening. There are several reasons that this could be happening and I could not fully judge the situation without observing it directly so I decided to put together the top 5 reasons that this might be happening.

    First, let's observe what we know. This particular situation involves two fixed, female dogs that have lived together for most of their lives without issues. The younger dog, let's call her Sadie, has just been diagnosed with Cushing's disease and is the one doing the attacking. The older dog, Molly, seems to be an innocent bystander in all of this.

    Reason #1. My first question was to find out if the dogs were fixed. Dogs have hormones and all storts of issues that come along with not being fixed. This can cause extreme hormonal changes that affect behavior. I want to add to this that even fixed females will sometimes still fight for dominance if there is a male around.

    Reason #2. Food aggression. Food aggression can seem to come out of nowhere. Dogs that used to be perfectly happy eating side by side suddenly cannot be anywhere near each other. Perhaps this is just grumpiness from old age or perhaps one dog has decided it doesn't like the way that the other one chews with their mouth open. Who knows. In any event, there are a few ways to try to work around this. Try to seperate the animals when you feed them. Bring one dog inside and have one outside. Seperate them before you even begin to prepare the food and do not allow them back together until all food bowls have been put away for a few minutes. I suggest keeping the dog that is being attacked on her "home turf" and removing the dog that is doing the attacking. That way, the attacking dog is the one that is out of her element and is being reintroduced to the other dog after eating. I have seen dominant dogs attack more submissive dogs everytime they are brought back into their home turf, even if they only left for a few minutes.

    Let's say that the attacking doesn't seem to only occur around feeding time. Sometimes, the dogs simply know that dinner time is in a few hours and they are already jockeying for feeding position. Try bumping feeding time up a few hours without warning (still separate both dogs to feed). This way the dogs are surprised and don't have time to argue about who is going to get dinner first. After dinner, the arguments seem to calm down most of the time. Fighting just doesn't seem as important when you have a full stomach.

    Sometimes the dogs are fighting over food that isn't even theirs. If a family member is snacking, the dogs may think that is fair game and are fighting over who is allowed to beg for scraps. I suggest trying to get the family to eat at one time and in one place. For example, everyone eats dinner at the table while the dogs wait outside. No food comes out until the dogs have safely been placed outside. This may help to eliminate some bickering.

    Reason #3. The dog being attacked may be sick. Animals can often tell when other animals are sick. In the wild, they would use this as a survival tactic. They might pick off the weak, sick or injured animals so as not to attract other predators, not to be slowed down, or to get rid of another mouth to feed. Sometimes dogs do this when they can sense the other animal has an illness. This could be cancer, heart failure or any other number of things.

    Reason #4. One, or both, of the dogs may be in pain. The reasoning I offered to my friend was that Sadie simply may not be feeling good and the other dog got on her last nerve. This explanation seems silly but I do think there is truth to it. Sadie may be developing arthritus and it hurts her to be touched, she may be lashing out at Molly either to tell her to stop touching her or because she thinks that Molly is somehow causing her pain. She also may be simply expecting the pain to come and so she lashes out in advance hoping to avoid the pain.

    Reason #5. Stress. I have heard of dogs becoming more aggressive during the winter due to being kept inside more. Any number of small changes in your home could have led to stress on your dogs. Did a family member recently leave for college? Did you get a new dog bed? Have you started leaving earlier for work? All of these can be stressful to a dog and she gets release when she snaps at her neighbor. I suggest looking for these changes and trying to spend more time with the dogs, perhaps one on one. Take each one out into the yard seperately and spend some running time with them.

    These clearly are not all of the reasons that your dog could be attacking another dog but I hope they help in some way. For more information, I recommend checking out this post by Pat Miller in The Whole Dog Journal. It has some very descriptive explanations.

    Do you have experience with dogs attacking each other? What are some of the things that helped you to solve the problem?

  • Bare Eyed Cockatoos

    Bare Eyed Cockatoos

    This is Pearl and Hobo. Pearl and Hobo are Bare Eyed Cockatoos that I worked with at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Bare Eyed Cockatoos are originally from Australia and are known for acting clownish and love to interact with their owners. 

    These two cockatoos lived together and it was extremely difficult to tell them apart. We learned to tell them apart by behavior. When you came in to feed in the morning, Pearl was polite and would wait off to the side while cooing 'hello' over and over again. Hobo on the other hand, would be more in your face and was clinging to the door as it opened, ready to jump on your plate of food. You had to be prepared or Hobo would knock the pan of food over. 

    Here is a similar image as above with a closer look at Pearl instead of Hobo. Can you see many physical differences between the two? 

    When you are working with a group of animals, you may learn to distinguish them by behavior before you can distinguish them physically. This is true if you are surveying animals in the wild as well. They all have their own personalities, quirks and habits. 

Hi! I'm Brittany and I started this blog to share my love of animals and to try and help save them in the wild. 

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