September 29, 2016
By Dawn Boyer, Great Apes Keeper
Let’s begin the story of Rubih and her rocks years before the first visitor viewing window was broken in the orangutan outdoor habitat in Fragile Forest. This story goes back to December 2014, when orangutan Merah is close to giving birth to Ginger. Ginger’s sister, Rubih, then 10-years-old, had been effectively kicked out of the nest she used to share with her mother. Rubih became, in essence, the odd person out of the group. She was no longer a kid, but not yet a confident adult.
The consequences of that became apparent when one day, very early in the spring of 2016, keepers were alerted to Rubih banging on the glass with a rock. When the keepers arrived, Rubih immediately moved toward them, unfortunately leaving the rock behind. Thankfully Rubih had been trained to place her hand on the dot of a laser pointer. Keepers were able to point at the rock, encouraging Rubih to pick it up. Once Rubih had the rock, the keepers called her over. Rubih handed them the rock and received a high value reward for trading the rock (a treat she loved to eat). It only took this one time for Rubih to realize that if she brought the rock to the keepers, she would be given a reward, and Rubih began bringing every rock she found and trading each of them for a treat.
To implement a “rock training” protocol with Rubih, the Great Apes professional care team decided to design and install a tube Rubih could use to drop the rocks into. The idea was that Rubih would be rewarded for dropping rocks into the tube, instead of handing them to the keepers. Once the tube was in place, keepers began cueing Rubih to drop each rock and rewarding her. She quickly caught on and actively participated in rock training and disposal.
However, what we soon discovered was that if the keepers were not around, Rubih would hit the rock on the glass to get someone’s attention. Keepers would then be called into action— immediately calling to Rubih and getting the rock from her.
The hope is to eventually have Rubih trained to drop the rocks into the tube regardless of whether the keepers are present. The team would then check the tube periodically throughout the day. If there are rocks in it, Rubih will be called over and rewarded. Hopefully this will eliminate her desire/need to hit the glass to get attention.
As with any training plan, and most things in life, this approach is not perfect but it seemed to be working, and our team was thankful that we have been able to avoid more broken windows over the summer. We also knew there was a high probability of the window-breaking happening again, and we were right. On Tuesday, August 16, Rubih unearthed a piece of cement from the base of a tree and used it to break a window.
That event did not stop the training. We’ll keep working with Rubih, and we continue to be proud of what we have accomplished, so far.