Zebra & Zebu Training, Day 1
Yesterday I had a unique opportunity present itself to me... Zebra training. I didn’t actually get the Zebra’s name, so for now I’ll refer to her as Stripes. Her pasture-mate, whom I also didn’t get a name for, I’ll call Mr. Cute (he really is THAT cute).
So Stripes and Mr. Cute had their first introduction to positive reinforcement yesterday afternoon. It was a very impromptu sort of thing, and really not what you would call “training”, per say. My approach upon first meeting any new animal is more of just a “Let me introduce myself”, sort of thing, and my goal is just to get to know the animal and let them get to know me. Of course, anything they offer that is reinforceable, I mark and reinforce, but I don’t ask for any behavior until I feel like they’re ready.
Both animals were very nervous about my presence in their enclosure, startling and jumping away at every unexpected sound and movement. Protected contact probably would have been better for all of us, but it wasn’t really an option.
Mr. Cute was quite a bit bolder than Stripes, and offered approaching me almost right away, though it’s quite possible that his version of “approach” was actually something of a threat. It’s really hard to be threatening when you’re small and cute though 😂
Delivering reinforcement was a bit of a challenge. I started by just putting the food on the ground (no way was anyone eating from my hand!) but Mr. Cute didn’t seem to understand that concept. Next I tried putting the food in a bucket, but both animals were afraid to put their heads in to eat. Understandable, as putting their heads in the bucket would mean temporarily losing sight of me, and who knows what evil I would do while they couldn’t see me! I ended up turning the bucket upside down and putting the food on the bottom of the bucket. This worked out quite well and Mr. Cute was ready to offer some behavior in exchange for some food. Stripes just kinda barged in and ate for free.
From then on, I mostly just focused on Mr. Cute. Stripes could learn by watching and join in when she was ready. When Mr. Cute would look at me, I’d put a little food on the bucket and move away so that he could eat. After a few repetitions of reinforcing Mr. Cute just for looking at me, he decided he should get a closer look. Criteria for reinforcement jumped quickly to approach and nose to hand targeting. Stripes just came over for the food after I moved away.
Once Mr. Cute was nose to hand targeting, it wasn’t a stretch for him to eat out of my hand, and Mr. Cute eating out of my hand meant no more free food for Stripes! Suddenly coming closer to me and having a little look didn’t seem like such a bad idea 😉