Djambala refuses to give up – the female gorilla adroitly manoeuvres the peanut with a thin stick until it falls through a small hole into the level below. She works persistently and patiently until she finally holds the object of her desire in her hands. A “puzzle feeder” like this takes plenty of skill and concentration – and is great exercise for the mind.
A visit to Zoo Berlin is an experience for all the senses. Children and adults alike love to hear the calls of the siamangs, watch the elephants taking their sand bath, and feel the soft fleece of the sheep in the petting zoo. But making sure that the animals here don’t get bored is a job that keeps our keepers on their toes.
Puzzles promote wellbeing
In the wild, the search for food takes up much of many animals’ daily lives. In the zoo, too, the animals are kept occupied with their meals for a good while thanks to fun-filled feeding techniques. The magic formula used to prevent boredom is a principle known as “behavioural enrichment”. This involves feed being distributed around the animals’ habitats in small portions for them to seek out, thus providing mental and physical stimulation and promoting healthy, natural behaviour. In other words: lateral thinking and plenty of fun are good for you!
The behavioural enrichment puzzles and toys represent a very real improvement in quality of life for the animals, and the keepers are encouraged to come up with creative ideas. So far, we have had challenging puzzle feeders for apes, tasty chains of fruit for the galagos in the Nocturnal House, stuffed pine cones for the porcupines, and hanging vegetable mobiles for tapirs and rhinos.
Watching the animal activities is also great fun for visitors. The daily California sea lion show offers an opportunity to marvel at the skill of these aquatic mammals. The sea lions are given small chunks of fish after every trick to keep them keen, but their remarkable feats are based on the animals’ natural behaviour and they are never forced to do anything they don’t want to do. The training relies purely on positive reinforcement – in this case, food rewards and words of praise from the keepers.
California sea lions are quick learners and are always acquiring new tricks. One of the sea lions, a female called Sandra, has a repertoire of 80 different tricks that includes jumping over a boat and balancing a ball on the tip of her nose.
The time it takes to learn a trick depends on the amount of practice as well as the ability and temperament of the individual sea lion. Some learn to do a backward roll in just two weeks, while others need over two months. Once they have got their tricks down pat, they are asked to show them off each week. The daily sea lion show includes 35 to 40 tricks.
Earning their wings
The Eurasian eagle owl scans the tiered seats of the open-air stage with its large amber-coloured eyes before swooping almost silently over the heads of the spectators and landing elegantly on the stage.
“We only protect what we love, and we only love what we know.”
This quote from renowned zoologist Konrad Lorenz makes a very important point. Environmental education is one of the most important tools for raising public concern about conservation issues. At the Tierpark, visitors can learn more about birds of prey by watching our feathered friends perform an impressive free-flight show. Our experienced falconers put in plenty of practice with the vultures, owls and raptors before allowing them to show off their skills before a live audience. This exciting and informative show demonstrates the intelligence and learning ability of birds of prey.
The concentration is evident on Opala’s face as she follows the directions given her by keeper Ruben Gralki. The female bonobo holds out her hand to be shaken, allows her belly to be examined, and shows off her shiny teeth.
Ruben Gralki’s instructions really click with his protégés – literally. For many years, the zoo’s team of experienced ape keepers have employed an established training method called clicker training whereby trainers use a whistle or clicker when issuing a command, enabling the animals to quickly identify the precise behaviour that results in a reward.
Bonobos, for example, can learn the command for standing up straight and still, which allows the vet to carefully listen to their hearts and lungs with a stethoscope. Another command teaches bonobos to show off their teeth for a dental exam or to accept having their temperature taken. And the apes love these training sessions – when the trainer appears with all the paraphernalia, the bonobos rush to be first in line.
Alongside education and species protection, research is one of the cornerstones of a modern zoo run in line with scientific principles. For instance, the commands the animals learn make it possible for them to be examined by a vet without undue stress. But clicker training has another advantage: it gives researchers the opportunity to observe animal behaviour in new ways. Research into zoo animals makes an important contribution to species protection – and our friends in the zoo can thus help their fellows in the wild.
Zoo Berlin’s bonobos really love to learn. Maybe one of them will be up for a “Bonobel Prize” soon?