How to train a Giraffe

Keepers at Bristol animal park make healthcare training for Giraffes less of a tall order with novel techniques Tuesday 15th March 2016

A big-zoo animal park in Bristol has been carrying special healthcare-led training exercises with a family of four giraffes to provide cutting-edge welfare. Moving on from the more mundane cleaning-and-feeding routines essential to daily care of all zoo animals, Keepers at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm have successfully developed a close relationship with these iconic African giants to encourage close trust and enable useful medical treatments to be performed without the need for sedation or stressful restraint.

Dedicated training sessions are held with the giraffes several times a week to build the important trust-relationship between Keeper and animal. Training methods used are strictly positive reinforcement, with the giraffe receiving something good for providing a specific behaviour. The reward the animal receives reinforces the action and the Keepers can use this to help with everyday care of the animal – including weighing, inspection of hooves and even microchipping.

Target training – a Keeper directing a specific behaviour using a simple touch-target (usually a ball on a stick) - can usefully help move giraffes safely around an enclosure to allow visual health checks, manoeuvre gates safely, and lead the animal into a chute (enclosed inspection bay). Chute training is carried out at least once a week, where the giraffe can be weighed, receive foot care or any other procedure or check needed. Weighing giraffes is vital to monitor health, and also helps Keepers plan an appropriate diet. Weighing can indicate whether they are gaining, maintaining or losing weight – weight loss can be a sign of illness or stress. Weights however must be used along with a body condition scoring system because animals come in different heights and shapes – there’s no such thing as a ‘standard’ giraffe! The body condition scoring system works by giving each individual a score between 1-5 (1 being emaciated and 5 being overweight). Keepers are looking for an ideal score of around 3.

All four giraffes at Noah’s Ark are target-trained, which visitors can see and help with in the parks ‘Big Zoo Keeper Experiences’. Training is not only helpful for our daily activities but it is enjoyable for the giraffe. They have the free choice to participate in training, and can walk away any time they want. However, they always stay because the reward is motivating for them and training keeps them mentally stimulated, acting as a form of enrichment.

Foot care and hoof maintenance is vitally important to giraffes – training exercises at the zoo mean that Keepers can apply hoof oil and even perform hoof trims. Keepers have previously carried out x-rays, physical examinations and preparation for microchips.

African Section Head Keeper Emma Green comments on the giraffe-Keeper relationship at Noah’s Ark: ‘Being an animal keeper is far more than picking up muck or simply feeding the animals. Building a strong bond with the giraffe is key to successful training, allowing us to provide the best husbandry and the highest standards of animal welfare. Since starting the training programme the giraffe have become far more trusting and comfortable within their environment, I am so proud of them. It is almost like a game for them and they are always happy to participate!’

Visitors to the Noah’s Ark this year also have the opportunity to meet the Giraffes in a personal short ‘Giraffe Encounter’, a popular cheap treat bookable from the zoos Ticket Office during a visit. A great deal of training has recently been focused on the preparation for transport of the two young male giraffes, George and Geoffrey. The brothers are soon to be moving on to a new home later this year, helping start a new giraffe group at a European zoo. Training them for their transport crates has gone well and will make the process far more relaxed.

Education, and the sharing of husbandry ideas within the animal care industry, is important in the continuing improvement of welfare standards within zoos and animal parks across Europe. Noah’s Ark Keepers frequently attend professional workshops to keep them up to date with the latest research and practises in giraffe management. Head Giraffe Section Keeper Emma Green regularly attends ABWAK (Association of British Wild Animal Keepers) Giraffe Keepers Workshops. Keepers from different zoos exchange first-hand information and experiences. Social networks including Facebook also allow keepers from across the globe to discuss and exchange ideas – this has become an increasingly important knowledge-sharing resource.

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