Cognitive Daily

Operant conditioning at the NC Zoo

You might think the zoo is an odd place for psychology bloggers to meet up. But on Saturday not only did Greta and I get a chance to connect with some of our readers and fellow bloggers, we also received some fascinating insight into the psychology of zookeeping. Our group toured the North Carolina Zoo, led by Jayne Owen Parker, Ph.D., the Director of Conservation Education of the Zoo Society.

As we strolled from exhibit to exhibit and listened to Jayne’s comments, we were struck by how frequently psychology enters into the daily routine of managing a zoo. Through operant conditioning, the animals are trained to assist the zookeepers in practically every zoo function, from feeding, to grooming, to medication and contraception.

Operant conditioning is simply the use of rewards and punishment to modify behavior, and examples of this process abound at the zoo.

When Jim and Nora were younger, we visited the zoo quite regularly, and one of our favorite animals was the elephant (or “Dumbo” as our kids called them). But the NC Zoo provides the elephants with a generous enclosure, and it seemed that every time we visited, they were at the far end of their space, to the consternation of children who wanted to get a close look. Don’t elephants like toddlers?

On Saturday, we were excited to see an elephant right up near the viewing area:

Jayne told us that this wasn’t a coincidence. In the last decade, zookeepers realized that their feeding schedule was affecting the elephants’ behavior. Every day at closing time, they let the elephants into the barn for feeding. For several hours, as feeding time approached, the hungry pachyderms gradually sidled towards the gate, so they’d get their food as soon as the gate opened. So the zoo placed a new gate near the front of the enclosure, and now at the end of the day the elephants go through that gate and then back through a chute to the barn to get fed. So now the elephants sidle towards the excited zoo visitors in anticipation of dinner, and everyone is happy! (By the way, there’s a great article on elephants in this month’s National Geographic.)

At the elk and bison exhibit, Jayne explained that these animals would be content to remain in their large “prairie” enclosure day and night, year-round, even in rain, snow, and sleet.

But the keepers occasionally do need to get the animals into the barn, for instance if a tornado or hurricane is approaching. So they trained all the animals to respond to a sound played over a loudspeaker. Now whenever the sound is played they go to the barn to get a reward. This is done daily, even though it’s not strictly necessary, so that the keepers know the animals will respond in an emergency situation. In fact, every animal in the zoo is trained to come to a unique sound, so that they can all be rounded up quickly, or a single species can be isolated as the situation demands.

Conditioning, Jayne told us, was a much safer and effective way to care for the animals than older methods like shooting the animals with tranquilizer darts. Even dangerous animals like grizzly bears can be trained to rear up onto a special apparatus, placing their claws and snouts in designated spots, and exposing their razor-sharp teeth for brushing. “The animals love to be trained,” she said. The sea lions used to get so excited in anticipation of a training session that their behavior became unnatural for several hours each day, so trainers had to vary the training schedule in order to avoid this problem.

For more on the visit and the meetup, check out Bora’s post, which includes links to all the other bloggers’ posts about the event. (And thanks, Bora, for taking the pictures in this post!)


  1. #1 Christian Casper
    September 22, 2008

    Great post — Good to meet you on Saturday!

  2. #2 Joel
    September 22, 2008

    A bit off topic, but there was a cool design of a new elephant center done by Foster+Partners.

  3. #3 Freiddie
    September 22, 2008

    Aw! Neat idea – just like training puppies to roll over or something.

  4. #4 minusRusty
    September 22, 2008

    The sea lions used to get so excited in anticipation of a training session that their behavior became for several hours each day, so trainers had to vary the training schedule in order to avoid this problem.

    “… their behavior became for several hours each day, …”???

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    September 23, 2008

    Oops. Unnatural. Kind of like the diction in that passage without that word.

  6. #6 Bjoern Brembs
    September 23, 2008

    That was a cool post! Working on the neurobiology of operant conditioning in flies (yes, you can train flies, too) I think I need to write a short post myself referring to this one!
    Thanks for posing this!

  7. #7 James Hanley
    September 27, 2008

    Very interesting post. The kind of thing that makes this a consistently interesting blog.

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