equine clicker training

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ASAT Conference 2016: Ken Ramirez on the “Conservation Connection – Training to Save Wildlife”

steller sea lion small

As a trainer who works with both domesticated and wild animals, Ken Ramirez has had many opportunities to see how good training skills can be invaluable in many different situations. I’ve heard him talk about training at the Shedd Aquarium, as well as at other zoos and aquariums, but this was the first time he talked about training as part of conservation efforts.  In his talk he presented a nice overview of ways that trainers can be involved in working with wildlife and some of the challenges that they face.

If you spend a lot of time around animal trainers, it’s easy to forget that animal training is still poorly understood and underutilized. Huge numbers of pets are euthanized daily for behavioral reasons and not all zoos recognize the pluses of behavior management.    Wildlife biologists working in the field have also been slow to see the value of including people with animal training on their teams.  But this is changing, and Ken’s talk had some great examples of projects where animal trainers worked with researchers to learn more about animals in their native habitats or were able to assist in conservation efforts.

He did point out that training is never the end goal in conservation. Most of the training is done to make it less stressful for the animals and to obtain information about them which can be used to understand how to help them in their native habitat.  Training should always be about improving their quality of life and it’s important to remember the four cornerstones of animal care which are medical, nutritional, environment/social structure and behavior management.

He also pointed out that there are some different challenges that trainers can face when they become involved in conservation efforts. There can be political and cultural challenges, especially if an animal lives over a wide range and crosses between different countries.   Many conservation efforts include re-introducing species to their original locations, and these can be difficult if there has been a lot of habitat destruction, the animals have become habituated to humans or they have not learned survival skills.  Because of this, conservation efforts often focus on studying the animal in its natural environment, as well as learning more from any animals that are in captivity.

Here are some of the projects he shared:

Black Rhinoceros

He had some video of early work that was done teaching black rhinos to accept blood draws without sedation.   This was done to get more information about rhinos that could be used to help the black rhino, whose numbers were decreasing in the wild.   Prior to this work, rhinos had been sedated for blood draws, but there was concern the sedation was affecting the results of the blood analysis, so they trained them to allow a voluntary blood draw from their ear.   Training wild animals in captivity can also be a good way to test out equipment or procedures before attempting to use them on wild animals.

California Condor

In 1987 there were only 22 California Condors left, some in the wild and some in captivity.   Breeding programs were established with the intention of releasing the new condors back into the wild, but the results were not good. The birds often imprinted on humans and they had trouble with the birds getting injured or killed when they flew into power lines.

In 1992, some improvements were made to the program, including the use of puppets for feeding and training the birds to avoid power lines. The puppets were shaped like adult condors so that the baby condors did not learn to associate people with feeding. Power line avoidance was taught by gradually introducing the birds to power lines (or simulated power lines) in their cages and teaching them how to avoid them.   These two changes made a significant difference and by 2010 there were 381 condors.

The California Condor story is a good example of how to prepare captive raised animals for life in the wild. It is important to teach them survival skills and to make sure they do not associate people with food.

Steller Sea Lions

Ken was involved in a project where researchers were capturing young male Steller Sea Lions and holding them for approximately 3 months so they could study them. This project started because there had been an 80% decline in the population in recent years and researchers wanted to find out why.  The hope was that by capturing and studying some animals over a short period of time, they would be able to collect useful data.  The sea lions had to be trained to accept blood draws, get on a scale to be weighed and accept some other medical procedures.

The challenge with this project was that the sea lions would be released back into the wild after a few months so they did not want the sea lions to habituate to people.  All the training had to be done with people working out of sight. Ken calls this “remote training” and he actually had to go to a formal hearing in order for the researchers to get permission to catch and study the sea lions. He had a pretty funny story about his involvement in it and how he had to explain that while most animal training is about building relationships, you can get training done without building a relationship. The sea lions were trained to move from one area to another on their own, and to go into a cage for restraint.   They were rewarded with fish, but the fish were “shot” into the pool, not delivered by a person.

I should point out that there were times when they were handled by humans , but this was only during aversive procedures, so there was little chance of them associating humans with food and seeking them out after they were released.

Bonneville Dam Sea Lion Dilemma

Here’s another sea lion story. This one involves some sea lions that decided sitting on the fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam was a great place to get lunch, or dinner, or a snack…   The ladder was there to allow Chinook Salmon to get upstream.  When the sea lions first appeared, they tried to scare the sea lions away, but they kept coming back.  So then they took a more training based approach and started training the sea lions to go somewhere else for food. This was a little tricky as Chinook Salmon are a preferred food, but they were able to provide another kind of fish in a different location and change the sea lions’ behavior. Ken did point out that this is an ongoing project as there are always “new” sea lions arriving that need to be trained to go to the alternate location, but the numbers are much lower than they were when the project started.

Polar Bears

How about training polar bears? As polar bears are moving south, they are encountering more people and towns and becoming both a nuisance (getting in trash) and a danger (attacking people).   Like the Bonneville Dam Sea Lion project, the focus of this project was to teach the bears to go somewhere else. He didn’t give a lot of details but he said it was very successful and the number of polar bear/human encounters decreased significantly.  Unlike other projects where it can be hard to get human compliance, he said these people were very motivated!

Australian Bilby

These are small marsupials that live in the Australian desert.  They were becoming endangered due to habitat loss and predation.  Conservationists have started a breeding program and are re-introducing them into predator free reserves as well as re-locating some existing populations.  Ken mentioned them as an example of how you don’t necessarily have to know a lot about the individual species to be able to help.  People with good training skills can quickly learn to work with a new species.

Weddell Seals

This was another quick example of how trainers can help in conservation. In order to study Weddell Seals, the seals are captured and wildlife biologists tag them, collect samples and record data about each individual.  When the teams started including trained behaviorists, the number of seals they could tag increased.

Sea Turtles

After the BP oil spill, there was concern about sea turtle eggs that were due to hatch along the Florida coast in the area where the oil spill had occurred.   A decision was made to dig up the eggs, hatch them, and release them in a safer location.   The best estimate was that approximately 60,000 eggs would need to be dug up and moved, but they could only find 12,000.

Ken had been attending the meetings and suggested that scent detection dogs, trained to find sea turtle eggs, might be able to help. His initial suggestion was met with skepticism (he had a funny story about that too), but later he did get permission to try it. He had to put together teams on very short notice, but he managed to get 12 dog/handler teams trained and working within a few weeks.  He said they found 29,000 eggs.

The Butterfly Project

Some of you may have already heard a little bit about this, but Ken shared more of the details. If you want to know even more about it, there’s a short article on Karen Pryor’s clickertraining.com website. You can find it at


Ken was asked by a UK botanical society if he could train butterflies to fly on cue. Since he often tells people that all animals can be trained with positive reinforcement, he said “sure.”  Then they asked him to do it…

So what do you do if you are asked to train an animal you haven’t trained before? You learn all about them. Ken said he had to learn what they would eat, what kind of stimuli they would respond to, and a lot about butterfly flight.

For this project the butterflies were divided into three groups (by color) and each group was trained to fly to a different location in response to a different stimulus. The stimuli he used were a light, a tone, and vibrations.  They trained the butterflies by placing a covered food bowl out and pairing the stimulus with uncovering the food.

Here are some of the challenges he faced:

  • The butterflies are living in a garden (lots of natural reinforcers) and there’s no roof! (they can leave at any time).
  • There were so many butterflies that it took 25 people to handle the food delivery so that the bowls were uncovered at the same time.
  • There are butterfly bullies- every butterfly was an individual and he had to deal with social interactions among butterflies
  • The wind volume and direction had to be considered
  • He was working at night
  • Some butterflies have short life spans… the window for training is pretty short

He said that it took them about 19 days to train the butterflies to reliably fly to a specific location on cue. Then they practiced for another 3 weeks until the big event which was the opening Gala. The Gala did raise a lot of money and the final performance was breathtaking. He has some video but he is not allowed to share it without permission. If you want to see it, you’ll have to come to Clicker Expo in Cincinnati.

Final thoughts

Conservation efforts could be improved by the addition of knowledgeable trainers to the staff. More advanced trainers are needed, and this means people who understand the science, have patience, a broad understanding of behavior that goes across species and are good at dealing with people and politics.

He ended with this nice quote which I think is a great one for anyone, regardless of what they are doing.

“In any endeavor we choose to embark on, our success is limited only by our knowledge, our willingness to put forth the effort, and our imagination. Each of those are only self-imposed limitations!”

Thank you to Ken for permission to share my notes.

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