Ask a Zookeeper: Can ANY Animal be Trained?



As many of you know, I am the Zookeeper-in-Residence on Jobstr.com--a website where "you can ask people anything about their jobs and answer questions about yours. It’s as though [they] took the classic 'What do you do?' cocktail party question and turned it into a website…minus the awkward small-talk."

I have been having a great time hosting my Zookeeper Q&A so far, and I have decided to reprint one of my favorite Jobstr questions on my blog every Tuesday. (Do you have your very own "Ask a Zookeeper" question for me? Ask it HERE!)

Here is this week's question, a follow-up on last week's question about a particularly gifted dancing walrus. (See last week's post here!)

Q. Can ANY walrus be trained [to tango and play the saxophone], or is that one especially intelligent? How about other animals; can pretty much any species be trained to perform a routine? -coryschneider


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A. Theoretically, any walrus could be trained like that. However--just like some people enjoy the spotlight while others shy away from it--it often depends on the individual animal.

First and foremost, keepers train their animals for practical "husbandry" or medical behaviors--like shifting in and out of pens so we can clean, presenting their paws and teeth so we can check for injuries, presenting their shoulders for injections, etc. Once our animals have those behaviors mastered, we begin to shift our focus.

If an animal seems to enjoy our training sessions, we often continue with other behaviors to keep the animal's environment dynamic and enriching. If the animal doesn't, we often leave them mostly to their own devices.

If an animal REALLY seems to respond to our training sessions, we sometimes make the decision to train that animal for a show or presentation. It certainly takes a special animal to thrive in a public venue like a stadium--just like it takes a special keeper to thrive in that environment as well.

As far as your species question, it depends. Animals with higher relative intelligence often respond more quickly than other animals, but that's not always the case. Generally speaking, it is also easier to train aggressive animals than it is to train shy animals, because aggressive animals are already hard-wired to approach us. It is fairly easy for us to redirect their energy once they do, but it is difficult to overcome the barrier of an animal that is hard-wired to run away from us. It takes a lot of initial training just to get them to feel comfortable being near us.