TACOMA, Wash. — To most Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium visitors, the tricks performed by the animals at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater might look weird, but staff biologist and zookeeper Adrienne Umpstead says they actually serve a purpose.
“By using positive reinforcement we are encouraging them do what we like them to do, when we would like them to do it and hopefully, because it is all positive, they want to participate,” she says.
Umpstead is used to training animals. Her challenge today is to train host Saint Bryan. Like most of his schoolteachers, she brought a stick. This one has a red rubber bulb on the end of it, known as a target.
“Basically an animal has learned if it touches its nose to this it's going to get a treat,” she says. “That's the most important part, and the more they do it the more treats they get, the more likely they're going to repeat that behavior we really want.”
For any reason, not every animal will cooperate. Bryan’s height can be daunting to a small animal and he is followed by a cameraman who may get too close.
Loretta the chicken took one situation and decided to take a sick day. But with the help of a Umpstead’s clicker, a target and a tube filled of yogurt, Bryan was able to get the mother and daughter tamanduas to crawl across the correct tree branches.
Some dried fruit and nuts convinced Nigel the prehensile-tailed porcupine to hang around for part of the show, and Tilly the aardvark knew exactly where to find a snout full of vanilla yogurt.
The combination of the target, the clicker and the treats even worked on Bryan who got a small candy bar for his work.
Point Defiance Zoo visitors can see shows daily at Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater.