Positive Reinforcement

The animals at the Saint Louis Zoo are trained through positive reinforcement. Through training animals voluntarily participate in doctors' visits, allow general housekeeping in their area and work with keepers while getting a pedicure or shower. Achieving these tasks through trained behaviors requires a devoted trainer, a well-prepared plan and a motivated "student." The motivation (or the reinforcement) can be food such as produce, bread or browse, or it can be tactile, such as brushing or scratching. Many animals are also motivated by the mental exercise and special attention during training sessions.

Training allows keepers and veterinarians to do their jobs more safely and easily. It also allows animals to receive the best care possible through their own willing involvement in the process. While training is often used to perform husbandry tasks, it is also enriching for the animals. It provides a challenge for them and offers them the opportunity to earn a reward that they find worthwhile. Training is rapidly becoming a vital tool in animal care.

  • How many keepers does it take to get a 16-foot-tall giraffe to hold still while getting his hooves trimmed? This isn't a bad joke but something our keepers must think about. In fact, it takes three keepers, a very tall ladder, some leafy branches and one long nail file. While one keeper works on trimming the hoof, another keeper must be 16 feet above, near the giraffe's head, to provide a leafy treat as a reward, while the third keeper must hold the ladder for support. And you thought trimming your nails was hard!

  • Our Sea Lion Show is entertaining to watch but we hope you learn something about the animals in the process. The unique opportunity to observe and learn directly from these live animals increases public awareness of wildlife and their ecosystems. Animal training is stimulating for our sea lions, but it's also beneficial for our keepers. Taking blood samples and performing regular check-ups becomes easier when you can simply ask the animal to lift a flipper, hold still for a moment or open its mouth. Training helps veterinarians and keepers form a complete picture of the animal's health.

  • Trying to work with an 8,000 pound elephant is hard. Trying to see under its feet is even harder. Imagine having to lift one of those things! With proper training, keepers can ask the elephants to see under their feet, in their mouths and under their trunks, and the elephants are happy to oblige. Such a strong comfort level between elephant and keeper is helpful when the elephants go to "elephant yoga." Each elephant has a daily exercise regimen that includes stretches, leg lifts and sit-ups. And just as exercise helps us, these individualized work-out regimes help keep the elephants healthy and strong. It puts a whole new spin on personal trainer!