The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in southwestern Ohio recently showed off the results of a training program that has been four years in the making. The zoo’s five giraffes worked with their caretakers to be able to be active participants in their own grooming. Specifically, they learned how to help their caretakers give them “pedicures.”
The zoo said it took hundreds of hours and thousands of crackers to build up the skills and confidence in the animals to get them to the point where they could offer their hooves to be trimmed on command.
“Giraffes are known to be nervous and skittish, so getting one to offer a foot and stand still while it’s being touched and handled by a keeper is no small accomplishment,” the zoo said in a news release.
While many humans might love getting their feet pampered during a pedicure, giraffes don’t exactly feel the same way about the foot-grooming process. But it has to be done, to avoid growth that can lead to broken bones, torn ligaments and pain.
“The hoof trimming procedure doesn’t hurt, but it’s not exactly a pampering experience like a human pedicure,” said Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard. “The fact that our giraffe team, led by Teresa Truesdale, has been able to teach all five of our giraffes, including two young males, to allow their feet to be handled is truly remarkable.”
Because giraffes are usually so skittish, many times basic, but necessary grooming procedures have to be done under anesthesia, Maynard added. But, putting an animal under often comes with extra side effects and health risks the caretakers want to avoid. That’s why the training program was so important for the Cincinnati Zoo.
“Foot health is vitally important for a species that has to balance a lot of weight on extra-long legs,” said Maynard. “The ability to perform maintenance with the animal’s cooperation allows the team to do regular checkups without the risks associated with anesthesia,”
But, how did the Cincinnati Zoo accomplish this feat with the giraffes’ feet? It was a series of smaller steps that led down the path to the desired behavior, according to primary giraffe trainer Truesdale.
It all started with teaching the giraffes to recognize a “target object” and touch it with its nose. Then, it moves to the animal lifting one of its feet, becoming comfortable with seeing grooming blocks in the barn, then putting the feet on the blocks and builds from there.
The goal: make the giraffes comfortable with each new behavior before starting a new one. Each step gets reinforced with a lot of positive affirmations and treats, of course. In the end, it’s about letting the animals know that their actions are safe and the caretakers can be trusted to give the giraffes the best care possible.
The Cincinnati Zoo even shared a video of their 14-year-old giraffe, Tessa, showing off her skills as she gets her hoofs cared for by keepers.
Truesdale said the trainers use similar training techniques for other necessary medical procedures, as well, including blood draws. Two of the giraffes are trained for voluntary blood draws and the other three are in the process of learning.
This type of voluntary positive reinforcement training, allowing animals to participate in their own care, is common with other animals at zoos and aquariums around the country, including dolphins, birds, fish, and mammals from big cats to monkeys. Elephants, for example, have long been trained to allow keepers to examine and care for their feet. Such conditioning allows keepers to reduce animals’ stress during necessary procedures while enriching their daily routines.