Training is key for wild animals, just like the family dog

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Lisa Melnik wild animal keeper has Zheng, the Red Panda, stand and be weighed at the Akron Zoo. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

Boo’s world turned upside down when Athena moved in last spring to share the large barn owl enclosure at the Akron Zoo. After getting a new roommate, the raptor, who had seemed happy splitting her digs with the male owl that died of old age, inexplicably became aggressive when zoo staff entered her habitat, said owl trainer Shannon Benedict of Stow.

“Whenever anyone goes in the cage, she starts shrieking and screaming so loudly you can hear her all over the zoo,” she explained. She asked nationally recognized animal behaviorist Dr. Grey Stafford for help to curb the owl’s obvious stress.

Stafford, author of the book Zoomility: Keeper Tales of Training with Positive Reinforcement, visited the zoo recently to conduct a behavior training seminar for the public and help staff members find solutions for stubborn behavior issues, said mammal curator Eric Albers of Twinsburg.

“It’s an opportunity for our staff members to talk to someone who’s been at it for 22 years,” Albers said.

When the group arrived at the barn owl habitat, they saw Boo quietly resting in a nest box while her nemesis, Athena, had claimed Boo’s favorite perch. Benedict acknowledged she hit a roadblock while trying to help the bird learn to cope with the newcomer.

“Are there any fights between the two?” Stafford asked.

Boo never confronts Athena, “just me,” Benedict said.

“Well, she’s taking it out on you,” Stafford told her.

Stafford suggested Benedict try feeding the bird frequently during the day so she would associate the food Benedict was giving her with positive feelings.

Eventually, the nocturnal hunter’s daytime world would begin to revolve around seeing Benedict, who represents food, and she would obsess less about her perceived territorial rights being violated, he said.

“When you leave, they should know the food leaves, too,” he said.

Stafford, who grew up in Cleveland, began his zoological career as a trainer at Sea World in Aurora. He said his methods work with all animals, including domestic cats.

“They are just like the big cats here — the lions and jaguars — when it comes to training.”

They are still felines, Albers reminded a visitor. “These guys are not all that different, but they can take your face off,” he said.

It takes a lot of training to get a snow leopard to back up to the bars on its cage to await the piercing pain of an inoculation by needle, but that’s the goal, said Stafford.

“We’re teaching animals to participate in their own care,” he said.

Animal keepers today want to avoid anesthetics for routine exams and inoculations. An anesthetic, as well as the stress of having it administered, may skew blood test results, Stafford said.

Tara Gifford of Sullivan, the zoo’s animal training consultant who works with zoo staff members one day a week, concurred with Stafford.

“Any time you can get a good look at an animal without anesthesia is good for the animal’s welfare,” she said while observing Zheng, a red panda, standing on a scale for the price of a raisin.

Lisa Melnik of Akron, primary trainer for the red pandas, demonstrated how she encourages 4-year-old Zheng when she enters his habitat for daily training sessions.

“As always, we remember they are wild animals. We know the subtle signs of frustration and know when to back off,” she said.

Stafford was impressed that Zheng and the zoo’s wood storks seemed unfazed by noisy construction from the nearby future site of Grizzly Ridge, slated to open next summer.

“These animals are all being trained with the construction noises and they are calm,” he noted.

Stafford’s message of positive reinforcement training with Zoomility’s three R’s — request, response, reinforce — has earned praise from TV personality Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, who wrote the foreword in Stafford’s book.

“His work in zoos, oceanariums, and television has enabled him to apply the same principles of reinforcement training to dozens of exotic and endangered species. Along the way, he’s helped many pet owners and professionals provide better care for their animals through positive reinforcement,” Hanna wrote.

While food may be the incentive for many animals, it doesn’t always work; some animals may require other inducements, said Stafford.

“Reinforcement can be done with toys, attention from the teacher, or a particular scent,” he said.

A large cat at the zoo loved a ginger body scent trainers sprayed inside a crate so much, it didn’t want to come out when its exam was finished, said Albers.

“It was just like a cat with catnip,” he said.

That’s why visitors to the zoo’s website shouldn’t be surprised that the donation “wish list” includes perfumes for its scent-loving residents.

As the group headed to Farmland, the zoo’s petting habitat, Linda Criss, vice president of communications, acknowledged she makes regular early morning visits to see the resident black Guinea hog named Cletus.

Criss, of Wooster, said she has a soft spot for the pig, probably because she grew up on a farm and was a member of a 4-H Club.

“He’s one of my favorites. I like his personality and he likes to be scratched,” she confided.

Cletus’ secondary trainer, Mark Schneider of Akron, who also cares for the storks and red pandas, said he didn’t have a particular favorite.

“They all have different personalities and so it changes every day,” he said.

Schneider asked Stafford for suggestions to help teach Cletus, who was nibbling on grapes, to mind his manners while feeding staff throw his food on the ground of his enclosure.

“Well, he is a pig,” Schneider said drolly.

Zoomility: Keeper Tales of Training with Positive Reinforcement answers the question, “What do killer elephants, killer whales and your family dog have in common?” The book retails for $14.95 and is available in paperback and for Amazon’s Kindle, iPad, iPhone and iPod.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or

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