In our last installment, the moose behavioral training program was mentioned. One of the first things we did in our training program was to teach the moose calves the concept of a bridge, in our case we use a dog whistle. A bridge is used to tell an animal ‘good job, your reward is on the way’, basically it bridges the gap between the behavior and reinforcer, hence its name. To teach the animals what the whistle bridge meant, we simply paired it with a favored food item – like a slice of apple. After a few rounds of ‘whistle-treat, whistle-treat, whistle-treat’, the moose quickly learned that every time they heard the whistle something good followed, so they learned to work to hear this sound.
The training has progressed to what we call husbandry behaviors. These are behaviors that facilitate management and veterinary care. When working in free contact, that is without a fence or other barrier between the trainer and animal, we have been working some ‘tactile training’ with the two smaller moose. This consists of using a verbal cue ‘touch’, touching or manipulating a part of the moose’s body, and bridging and rewarding if the animal calmly accepts the touch. This tactile training, along with the strong relationships developed during the bottle feeding of these young moose, has recently paid dividends in helping us to evaluate our smallest moose – the Idaho female – for lameness in her left rear leg. Keepers and veterinary staff were able to voluntarily take x-rays of her foot and lower leg, to help look for potential injuries. Without the ability to work so closely with this moose calf, it would have been necessary to sedate her for these x-rays, which would have greatly increased her stress and possible risks during these tests.
You might have picked up on the fact that only the two smaller moose are being trained in free contact at times. That’s because our largest animal, the Alaska female, now tips the scales at over 400 pounds, and she has a tendency to get overly enthusiastic at times. So we’ve decided that her favorite treats and the training sessions that she appears to enjoy are safest when done in a protected contact setting – in this case through a chain link fence. The keepers do still go in with all three moose daily for care and cleaning, but since training sessions tend to get them a bit more excited, we try to set these up to be as safe as possible for all concerned.
Husbandry training can be done in protected contact too, though, and all the moose are in the early stages of learning a ‘line up’ behavior, where they line up parallel to the chain link fence, allowing us easy access the side of their body. This behavior can be a building block for teaching voluntary injections, where the moose would be taught to press their hip up against the chain link and allow a vaccination or other needed injection. This has been done successfully in many zoos and wildlife facilities with a wide variety of species, so there’s no reason we can’t teach the moose this behavior, if we have enough time before they ‘graduate’ to a larger holding space or the free roaming area.
We’ll keep you updated on the moose training as it progresses, and next time, learn how we enrich three moose calves!
Don’t forget to check out past issues of Moose Memoirs, as well as other information on our three calves, by clicking on “Meet the Moose” on the left side of this webpage. And thanks to those who have donated via the link below to help care for our moose babies, we’ll be drawing our next behind-the-scenes tour winner very soon!
You can donate today to help Northwest Trek care for our three moose calves! Your tax deductible donation will help fund food, supplies, enrichment items, and keeper staff time to care for the moose babies and other animals at Northwest Trek.