An Interview with Tara Gifford

Written by Patience Fisher

It’s simpler to ask Tara Gifford what type of animal she hasn’t trained—from dogs and horses to sharks and tigers, Tara has worked with them all. Currently, she owns a behavior consulting business, Ohio Animal Training LLC, which focuses on zoo animals and horses. She grew up riding horses, but her first professional training position was at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where she worked with birds and animals in the Children’s Zoo. She then spent ten years at the Brookfield Zoo, where she trained marine mammals such as dolphins, walruses, and otters to perform shows for zoo visitors. When she started a consulting business, she used markers and positive reinforcement (which she had learned when working with marine mammals) to train other zoo species and horses.

Training zoo animals to perform simple husbandry behaviors makes daily life less stressful for both them and their zookeepers. When I spoke to Tara, I asked her which husbandry behavior was the most important across species. Tara stated:

I’d say a big one is just weights. Being able to monitor the animal’s weight is important to monitor their conditions, or meds or something like that. It’s nice to know exactly what they weigh rather than just guessing. And in general, it’s an easier behavior to train. It doesn’t really involve any pain for the animal like some of the things we’re asking them to do. They will do different targeting or stationing; we use a lot of mock scales because an area might not have a scale for every building. So we’ll use just a platform and teach the animal to get up on the platform, and then when we need the weight, we’ll slip the scale in underneath the platform. It kind of looks the same as long as it’s in the same area.

Amazingly, Tara trains zoo animals to permit the veterinarian to draw blood. She starts by charging the marker, and then clicker trains them to press against the bars of their enclosure. The tricky part is getting the animal to let her touch them. Tara explained:

They figure out the marker pretty quickly, but they don’t necessarily want to be touched. So that’s another long process, getting them used to rubbing against your hand or something. A lot of times they can be comfortable touching you, but they don’t want you to touch them.

Once the animal is leaning into the bars when Tara’s hand is there, she begins to put a little bit of pressure back on them, and then proceeds to shape them to let her initiate the contact when they are an inch away, and then a little farther away, until she can initiate the contact as needed. The goal is to shape this so smoothly that they never flinch, but of course, training does not always go as we hope. Tara explained what she does when an animal flinches in response to her touch:

It depends on how strong the reaction is. We back up and expect just a little bit less so we can end on something other than them being spooky and pulling back, even if I have to reduce my criteria, to end on a positive note somehow.

From there Tara shapes their acceptance of being prodded with a needleless syringe. But getting an animal to accept having a needle plunged into them the first time sounds like a big step. How does she prepare them for this step?

When we’re just getting them started with the needle the first time, we’re not truly trying to draw blood; we’re just trying to expose them to the feeling of the needle, a quick prick of the needle. Sometimes we’ll even cut back the cap of the needle, so we just prick the skin and we’re not going in farther than we intend to. And we’ll start with a very small needle, and then we may have to go up to a larger gauge when we’re actually getting a blood draw, but we cut that into as many small approximations as we can.

Tara also ups the quality of the reinforcer when it’s time to use the needle. But since she works with so many different species and individuals, what will be considered high value has to be discovered for each animal.

We try to have a variety of different treats or reinforcements with us, and through the training process we figure out whether they really like grapes the best, or a little piece of watermelon, or a banana. The keepers who have done a lot of sessions with them and have tried a lot of different things can figure that out. Sometimes it’s just a portion of their regular diet. Depending on their diet, they can’t always have treats, you know, that are outside of their normal diet. So if you just set down their bowl with all their options in there and watch and see what they go for first, that’s usually pretty high value. They’ll want to snatch that and eat the highest value stuff first, typically.

. . . Some of them we can use a brush—a long-handled brush or something. We use that at times for some of the rhinos that like to be scratched and rubbed. We’ll use a long-handled brush and rub their tummy when they’re standing there for a blood draw. We had a snow leopard that we’d use a toilet bowl brush—clean—for them to rub against.

The zookeepers are an integral part of the training program.

Sometimes the training goals come from the curators or the vets if there’s something specific that they want us to train the animals for. So sometimes the idea of what to train might come from somewhere else, but I do work with the keepers to develop a training plan if it’s a new behavior they haven’t worked on before, just to have a road map of where we want to go with that, and to think ahead to the resources we’ll be needing…. Most of the keepers that I’ve worked with over a number of years are pretty good at handling the training situation, so they do the sessions basically on their own and then when I come we’ll go over any stumbling blocks or just review any problems, or cheer them on if they’re doing great.

The relationship between the animal and the trainer can be so important that Tara has to rely on the zookeeper to do all the training, while she stays far away, or even out of sight.

There are some animals that I can’t even stand very close to the keeper because they’re protective of their keeper. I’ve had a situation with a gorilla before that had a good relationship with that keeper, and not really thinking; I was trying to tell the keeper they did a really good job and went to pat the keeper on the back, and the gorilla got really upset that I touched their keeper. It usually just takes one of those instances and then you remember: just keep your hands behind your back and step away from the keeper. There have been a couple of big cats that have done better if I stand farther away and observe.

I thought that fierce predators such as cats and bears would be the most challenging, but Tara said that hoofed stock could be very tricky:

Some animals do better working on their own, but a lot of them are used to being in a herd or a group-type situation, and they do better if they’re not separated. So that can be a little bit of a challenge. If you’re trying to work with a group of animals, and you want to work with one that is maybe more subordinate, you have to keep the dominant animal busy or out of the way so you can focus on the more subordinate animal that might not want to come up because the dominant guy is just going to step right in front and take everything. So we’ll station train animals or we’ll use different targets to line them up so we can have a little more control over the whole group.

But how does Tara get fierce predators not to lunge at the bars, knowing she is there with a bag of their favorite food?

It depends on the animal; it depends on the situation. Some animals do better if they’ve had their breakfast first, and then you come a little bit after that with your treats. You sort of figure that out as you go. Some animals won’t give you the time of day unless they haven’t had their breakfast, and they’re working for their breakfast. It depends on the individual; [it takes] a little bit of trial and error to see how they’re going to respond the best.

So the antecedent conditions that Tara considers are state of hunger and protective contact. But she can’t lure the way we do for cats and dogs. I asked her if there were any creative antecedent arrangements she had used to get an animal to perform a behavior.

We use a lot of targets to get them to go where we want them to, or to get that body part that we’re looking for up against the mesh. If we want a hip up against the mesh to be able to do vaccinations, sometimes we’ll create a sort of chute for that animal to walk through to get that hip up closer to the mesh to start with. Say we’re trying to get a hip injection for a leopard. We might put a big log a couple of feet away from the front barrier so that they’ll walk through and come parallel to the mesh.

Or if we’re trying to get hoofed stock to stand on a mock scale, we might put brush along a couple of sides that he wouldn’t necessarily want to cross over, to get him to come straight so we can get all four feet on the scale.

In addition to husbandry behaviors, Tara also trains animals for mental stimulation.

You can train the polar bears to go underwater and go to a specific target that’s held underwater. You can train them to mimic behaviors underwater that the trainer might do. For some of the cats we do a lot of enrichment things: hiding things, hanging things in the tree to get them to climb and to forage and to search for things.

Some of the primates, like gorillas, sometimes like to sit a lot. So we train them to go to a certain place and touch a target or touch a marker, something like that just to get them to move around more.

Tara has also trained tigers to hang out by the viewing window so that zoo visitors could see them better. Visitors also enjoy animal shows and Keeper Talks. Tara puts natural behaviors on cue, so the viewing public can learn and so that the animal gets mental and physical stimulation.

With the gibbons or the siamangs, training them to go up high and go from spot to spot so that you can see how they brachiate—swing through and easily grab onto stuff and move around up high. We can put those kinds of behaviors on cue.

When I asked if there were any differences in rate of reinforcement for different species, Tara stated:

Yes and no. Some animals are slower eaters and respond in a more relaxed manner. Comparing working with a walrus to working with a sea lion—sea lions respond very quickly; they just are moving, moving, moving, moving. Walruses tend to think about things and process things a little bit more before they respond, and they eat a little more slowly, so it’s a different pace when you’re working with a sea lion than when you’re working with a walrus.

An important behavior for dangerous animals to learn is emergency recall—they need to respond quickly to this cue, even if there is a distraction such as something in their exhibit that does not belong there.

We want to be able to call those animals and have them respond very quickly to come off exhibit, not just their usual “come on in” at the end of the day, so we pair that with something of very high value. A special sound, a special food item (most likely it’s going to be a food item) to teach them to come in. And we start with something that’s going to be very easy for them; sometimes it’s just from one holding area to another, so they start to pair those two together, that new special sound and that new special food.

We’ll work that a few times and then we’ll have them, perhaps, in another area of the building or out on exhibit but fairly close so that we’re fairly sure it’s going to work:, make it pretty simple, set them up for success, arrange your antecedents, maybe close to the time that they would come in for the day.

We wouldn’t necessarily want, in the beginning stages, to give them some enrichment item and then call them in right away, but eventually as we move farther down the training plan we do that. We give them something that they really like, a favorite toy or some sort of a favorite food, and we test them to see if they will still come in and leave that toy or leave that food item, and their head snaps up, and they come inside—that’s what we’re looking for.

Tara said that it can take up to six months to accomplish this, because you cannot train it often or that food item will cease to be special. Over this time, she might do the special sound for the special recall only eight times. If the animal ever does not come in when cued, she just closes the door—they missed their opportunity to earn the special food. She then reduces the criteria at the next session and builds back up to them responding promptly and reliably.

In addition to zoo animals, Tara teaches horses ground manners.

A lot of the cases are horses that don’t stand well for the farrier, so they have to be sedated. We’re trying to get them used to having their feet handled by people in general and then specifically the farrier.

I asked Tara what she saw in common across all of the species.

I think that they really enjoy it if you can set them up for success. If you can get them some quick, positive outcomes, they tend to come back and they want to participate. The more that you can give them a choice about whether they participate or not—that is just huge. Getting a kind of buy-in from your animal. A lot of the horses that we’ll work with, rather than putting a halter and lead on them, we’ll just take them out in the arena and work their feet that way and if they choose to walk away from us, well, then that’s giving us some pretty good information. Rather than starting in a confined space where they may already feel anxious, or they may already have some prior history with that specific space, we like taking them to a kind of a happy place and starting to work it there where they don’t have a lot of negative association.

It was a pleasure to chat with Tara. I know I will be thinking about the tigers she has trained to allow blood draws the next time I train a house cat to allow his claws to be trimmed. And I will be thinking about getting buy-in to a training session when I ask my cat if he wants a lesson (and he comes right to me with his tail up and curled). And when an animal declines to be a part of a training session, I will remember how Tara said, “that’s giving us some pretty good information.”

Patience Fisher owns a feline behavior consulting business based in Pittsburgh, PA; she also owns a nonfiction editing business. She holds a Bachelor’s in Biology, an Master’s in Engineering, a Diploma of Feline Behavior Science Technology, and is a certified veterinary assistant. Visit her on Facebook at Patience for Cats.