How to train your dragon (or otter)
Published: Sep 24, 2015My name is Libor and I am originally from the Czech Republic. I have been around animals all my life, but for the last 15 years I have been actively working with animals in the wild and in zoos around the world.
My name is Libor and I am originally from the Czech Republic. I have been around animals all my life, but for the last 15 years I have been actively working with animals in the wild and in zoos around the world. I have worked with and trained police dogs, ex-race horses, marine animals and rare species of bird, reptile and mammal. Four years ago I moved to the UK and started working at Living Coasts as a keeper/diver.
I am a strong believer in training zoo animals. Training can be a tool for reducing their stress when we have to do health checks or routine enclosure maintenance. I also believe that training is one of the best enrichments that we can provide for zoo animals. It keeps our animals physically and mentally fit, enriching their lives and reducing their stress.
I started training our three male Asian short clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea) two years ago. They had no previous experience of any kind of training, which made my life pretty challenging! The first and the hardest step was to gain their trust. It wasn’t easy, but when I discovered their favourite food, I discovered their weakness, and I then started to gain their trust. After countless hours, it started to pay off; I would spend my lunch breaks and sometimes even my day off with the otters. The otters started eating from my hand without any aggression or fear, the bond between us was made and we could start training.
At first, I began training them to come to me whenever I called them. It’s called ‘re-call’ and it’s really important to train your animals to come on a signal. You never know when you’ll need to move your animals in hurry, or stop them doing whatever they are doing and come to you. If the animals get out of their enclosures, in an ideal world they will come back on re-call. I have never tested this with our otters, but it generally works with dogs and other animals.
Another step was to train them to go to their stations – individual positions within the enclosure. Easier said than done! This type of otter lives in a family group and they do everything together, so I couldn’t separate them, not even for the training sessions.
I put three stumps into their enclosure and gave them some time to adjust to something new. After a few days, I began to train them to go onto their individual stations. There was a lot of confusion, frustration, but also lots of fun! To start with, they were all over the place, changing places, running around, pushing each other off. After a week of intensive training they finally learnt their own places and started coming onto them automatically, whenever we have a training session. I can now check every otter individually, feed each one with specific food (as some of them are on a special diet) medicate each individual, get them on a scale one by one and much more, without any confusion and chaos.
So keepers, train your animals, it’s lots of fun, it will make your life much easier in the long run, despite the fact it can be very time consuming at the beginning. Most of all, it keeps your animals HAPPY .
- Libor Mach, keeper at Living Coasts.