The Pet Issue 2021: Training Day

A red kangaroo receives treats during a pouch check

“Since we’ve had a really cool spring this year, she’s doing it later in the year than what they normally do.”

On a recent spring afternoon, J.G. Auman is standing on a small walkway over the Nashville Zoo’s American alligator exhibit, attempting to showcase one of the zoo’s many behavioral training efforts. A biologist and the zoo’s head of aquatics, he’s explaining why Prada — a 16-year-old gator who clocks in somewhere around 200 pounds — isn’t going after the rat carcass he’s dangling into the enclosure with an extended set of metal tongs. He bangs the tongs against the side of the enclosure and whistles down at Prada — her cue to know she’s about to be rewarded.

The Pet Issue 2021: Training Day

Prada the American alligator

Female alligators’ appetite is affected by their ovulation, and their ovulation is affected by the weather. But just as Auman is explaining why we might not get much of a show on this particular afternoon, Prada makes a move for the rat. Sure enough, she glides through the water, and with a sudden motion, she clamps down on the morsel in a seamless display of predatory prowess. Then she’s back down into the water.

“She was just being slow, I guess!” Auman calls out to some of the zoo-goers watching from outside the exhibit below. He goes on to explain why this sort of training is part of the Nashville Zoo’s programming. “It’s actually exercise for her, and it also allows her to use a hunting technique that she would use in the wild. And so what it does is stimulate parts in her brain [as though] she’s hunting, in a sense. If you just throw food at a gator, they get really overweight.”

American alligators like Prada were once near extinction, but conservation efforts bolstered their numbers, allowing them to be removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “endangered” list in the late ’80s. Like that of the American alligator, the Andean bear’s habitat has also been threatened by human encroachment, driving their numbers down and landing them on the IUCN’s “vulnerable” list. The Nashville Zoo also employs training techniques with a pair of Andean bears named Muniri (a 5-year-old male) and Luka (a 7-year-old female). The two bears — their telltale yellow facial markings showing that they’re both members of South America’s sole native bear species — have been partners for three years, but they haven’t managed to successfully breed just yet.

The Pet Issue 2021: Training Day

Luka the Andean bear participates in target training

The bears’ keepers explain that they use what is known as target training on the two mammals, preparing to demonstrate as Muniri and Luka come bounding down a hill toward a barred opening in the enclosure. The keepers hold a pole with what looks like a foam ball at its end high between the bars of the enclosure. Luka and Muniri — both very capable when it comes to bipedal locomotion — stand up on their hind legs, reach up and touch the end of the pole. They’re given positive reinforcement in the form of treats and the sound from a handheld clicker. Zoo employees explain that this form of training prepares the bears for veterinary procedures like vaccinations and blood sampling — if they can get Luka and Muniri to approach and hold their bodies upright, they can give them necessary shots and draw their blood without having to sedate them.

 A similar form of target training is used on another of the zoo’s animals — a 9-year-old, 130-pound male double-wattled cassowary named Sy. His keeper will tell you that cassowaries like Sy are birds indigenous to Australia, but given their long, sharp-clawed toes and reptilian looks, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re straight-up velociraptors. Target training is used to make Sy more comfortable with procedures like vaccination against West Nile virus. For Sy’s training exercises, keeper Lauren Covington moves a clip-on plastic target around the bars of the cassowary enclosure. When she says “target,” Sy pecks at the target and is rewarded with a grape. This prepares the somewhat skittish bird for interactions with veterinarians.

The Pet Issue 2021: Training Day

Sy the cassowary participates in target training

“He and I have a really nice bond,” says Covington lovingly. “I work with him every single day, I train him every day. So eventually he doesn’t care about the shot. Until it actually goes into his muscle — then he doesn’t like the vet anymore.”

But for all the behavioral training practices that the Scene gets to witness on this late-May afternoon, far and away the most adorable is that of the red kangaroos. The Australian marsupials carry their joeys around in their pouches until the babies are about 9 months old. But how do Nashville Zoo employees check on the progress and health of the pouch-ensconced little ones without getting a kick in the face from Mom? That’s where more training comes in.

A team of two keepers will approach the mother kangaroos — who have names like Pearl, Mandalay and Rooby — with a bowl of food. While one zoo employee will distract the mom with the snacks, getting her to raise up on her hind legs and grip the food bowl with her forelimbs, the second employee will gently open the sphincter muscle at the opening of the pouch and peer inside using a flashlight. Sure enough, when the Scene manages a peek into one of the pouches, there we see a joey curled up like a toddler in a hammock. It’s undeniably precious, but the interior of the pouch isn’t quite the fuzzy, stuffed-animal-like pocket you might envision. One of the kangaroos’ keepers puts it simply.

“It’s like a sweaty, hairless armpit.”

The Pet Issue 2021: Training Day

A joey its mother's pouch

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