Animal Behavior Observers: A New Way for Docents to Help
The Oakland Zoo, Oakland, CA
In July of 1996, all 4 of our expert elephant keepers, who know their animals really well, were discussing how well they knew what the elephants did all day and all night. The problem was no 2 keepers “knew” the same things to be true! So, they decided to study the animals, collect and compare data, and, by knowing what the animals do when and how often, the keepers could modify the elephant program to better meet the needs of the animals. Simple, right?
The keepers, volunteers, and other `elephant people’ started observing the animals’ activities during the evenings. Observations were written in long hand, and compared at meetings. They found a few problems with this method. The observations were much too subjective with lots of individual interpretation. Some were very flowery, not very scientific. And, perhaps the worst, was the lack of consistency. For example, when an elephant moved slowly around the exhibit or bull yard picking up bits of food and eating it, one observer would record this as `walking,’ another would interpret it as `eating.’ A third might write `foraging.’ So what was it?
Where was the value in this data? The keepers recognized a need for an ethogram.
Taking a lesson from Jane Goodall’s Chimpanzoo project in which The Oakland Zoo participates, they set about establishing a set of behaviors and defining those behaviors so all observers would record them the same.
As they applied the ethogram, they tweaked it as necessary, adding, removing, changing behaviors and definitions. It was decided to use a timer and take `snapshots’ of the elephants’ activities. Every 5 minutes, the observer would record what each elephant was doing, where they were, and how close to each other they were.
This would give the keepers a feel for the amount of activity of each animal, what their relationships were, and how much time each spent doing what.
As the process smoothed out and the amount of data built, the elephant keepers realized they could use this opportunity to gather more information to answer other questions they had. So they developed a second ethogram. Besides the 5-minute snapshots, each occurrence of particular behaviors would be recorded. From this, the keepers would be able to tell how much time each of the elephants slept, for instance, if they did so at the same times, and where in relation to each other they slept. If there was a decrease or increase in a particular animal’s intake of food or water, that would become apparent from the data.
At that time, we had a baby elephant, Kijana. Now that the elephant staff had this ethogram thing down, they decided to do some observations on Kijana. They created an ethogram to reflect what they wanted to learn about his actions. Then, years later, when Lisa elephant was expecting again, they created ethograms for a birth watch program.
Some important lessons were learned from this process:
1. For one thing, data is skewed and thereby useless if the animal’s behavior is changed in any way because of the presence of the observer. Kijana recognized his `herd’ of alomothers. As soon as he saw one come to take observations, he would stop what he was doing and come over to greet them. While this was great fun, it wasn’t very scientific and didn’t yield any valuable information. The first time I did an observation of the adult elephants after zoo hours, I stood at the fence and quietly spoke to Lisa Elephant. She gave me `a look’ like Lisa can and started reaching for rocks to throw at me. She was very clear about letting me know that she knew it was her time and I had better just sit on the bench and leave her be. As soon as I sat on the bench and was quiet, she went back to doing her normal after-hours behavior.
Animal Behavior Observers.doc
I wasn’t the only observer to learn this lesson. So methods were developed, parameters set. Observers would have NO interaction with the animals. They must remain quiet, unobtrusive, and `melt into the scenery.’
2. The second lesson was that we needed to constantly reinforce consistency of recording. Meetings of all observers set at fairly regular intervals were held to discuss behaviors, potentially make adjustments to echograms, confirm that everyone was interpreting behaviors in the same way, and discuss any `new’ behaviors and provide definition. As we continue to add people to this program, it continues to be an important part of the process.
3. Also, as more people were becoming involved in the observations, it became apparent that it was extremely important to become very familiar with the subject animals. We do observations all through the night as well as some during the day. The observer needs to be able to recognize the animals from any angel, even in the dark. There are obstacles in the exhibit that might block your view, partially or totally. Our elephant exhibit is nearly an acre large and being expanded. Or one may be in another area, like the bull yard. You may have to view one of the animals at some distance. It’s also important to know the personalities of the individual animals and their relationships. For example, if Donna approaches Lisa, it’s no big deal. They are friendly. However, if Donna approaches M’Dunda, we
need to watch more closely because Donna sometimes is aggressive toward M’Dunda.
4. The keepers know the animals the best, but they represent a food source. So some extra thought had to be put into their behavior. They usually don’t wear their uniform while observing after hours. They don’t feed the elephants during their shift if at all possible. And it’s especially important for them to blend into the background and not interact with the elephants.
Note: The elephants have become accustomed to the beeper and process and are not affected by the associated human presence and behaviors as long as we stay quiet and unobtrusive.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Was all this trouble worthwhile? What’s been gained?” Yes. Our keepers think it’s definitely worth the trouble. They’ve learned a lot and made quite a few changes as a result of the observation program. They’ve eliminated the 2:00 am feeding because they were waking up the elephants to eat, which didn’t seem to be the right thing to do. They’ve given the animals access to additional areas at specific times of the night to deter boredom and provide additional exercise. They’ve locked out specific areas at specified times to make the routine more complex and less predictable for the sake of mental stimulation. By analyzing the data, the keepers have been able to increase desired behaviors (they’ve added over 3 miles of walking a day), decrease stereotypical behavior (head swaying is down to 1%), and by monitoring social behavior, they’ve reduced aggression by providing more enrichment, more activity, and better timing the activities. When a new enrichment item or process is introduced, these observations are used to evaluate its impact.
With all that success, it only figures that other zookeepers would see the value in the program and want to apply it to their respective areas. The giraffe keeper wanted to gather baseline information regarding exhibit usage, feeding, interactions among the various species on our veldt, and enrichment. And other keepers started seeing ways observing their animals would be beneficial for a multitude of reasons. They began creating specialized and generic ethograms and determining observation parameters for specific focuses. But there aren’t nearly so many `giraffe people’ as there are `elephant people’ to take on the task. And even fewer professionals in other areas. The value in having more trained people to perform these observations soon became quite apparent.
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At some point, the staff realized that they probably had lots of volunteers and docents that would be delighted to take part in this work. And for FREE! So they decided to train this work force. Initially, all the training was done by the keepers. It was time-consuming but worthwhile.
Meanwhile, there was another program called Primate Interpreters. These participants had already been trained to scientifically observe animal behavior and they were being under-utilized. Basically, they felt like they were Chimp Police because they patrolled the chimp area to control guests that behaved in inappropriate ways. They were a ready source for further training.
Training has continued to evolve. Now we train 10-20 people at a time. The basic training is presented by our Conservation and Education Director, Anne Warner, Charlene Antal, Volunteer Programs Manager, and Julie Bitnoff, Docent, teacher, chimp person. Currently, the class is on Sundays for 3 weeks, 2.5 hours each plus a follow-up the week after the course is completed. The training covers the history of the need, an overview of the program, and an introduction to ethograms and the different ways of gathering the data. There are practice sessions during the class and homework observations in between. During the last class session, the students are told which animals currently require observers. The keepers come in and explain what the focus for their respective animals is and introduce the class to the associated ethograms. At the end of the class, each student signs up to observe one of the species. The observers then establish a time to meet with the keeper for that group for specific training.
So far, we have applied this process to chimpanzees through the ChimpanZoo program and to monitor transition of dominance among our own chimps; elephants resulting in changes in routine and analysis of new enrichment; giraffes to establish baseline information regarding exhibit utilization and inter-species interactions; lions to document cub introduction behavior; vervet monkeys to monitor aggressive behaviors between males during a change in alpha positioning; and cotton-top tamarins and toucans who shared an exhibit when there were baby tamarins.
As for the future, the possibilities are unlimited. Now that we have a training program that has proven successful, it can go anywhere the need leads us. Elephants will continue to be studied for many purposes. A new study will begin to determine how far they walk each day and to monitor their use of the expanded exhibit.
Giraffes will continue to be studied for exhibit usage and interactions. With the animals from the Children’s Zoo being in temporary housing all over the zoo, they will be carefully observed for adaptation. Then they will be moved into new permanent quarters when the new Children’s Zoo is completed. Any animal in our care could benefit from observation. Our keepers are dedicated and creative. I’m sure they’ll come up with lots of uses for this service that is now readily available to them.