There is a growing trend in zoos and aquariums to offer more choice and agency to ambassador animals, such as parrots, which are used for education and outreach purposes. Rebecca Young, who is associate curator of ambassador animals at Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga., said that now, when she goes to pick up a parrot, she invites it to participate in a presentation.
First, she presents her flat hand to the parrot. “That’s me saying ‘do you want to step up?’” she said. If the parrot lifts his foot, it’s his way of saying “Yes, please.” Only then will she bring her hand closer so that he can step on.
“The animals have a voice, and learn that they can say ‘no thank you’ without biting or scratching,” she said.
In the last five to ten years, more and more Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited facilities have realized the benefits of offering choice and control to ambassador animals. They’re giving animals the option to participate, and that, in turn, resonates with visitors.
“We’re not forcing the animals to do anything they don’t want to do,” said Jake Belair, lead ambassador animal keeper with Nashville Zoo at Grassmere in Nashville, Tenn. “I think that promotes empathy and creates a link between the animals and our guests.”
We talked to AZA members across the country to find out the different ways they’re communicating with their ambassador animals. From spiders to sloths, read on to find out how they’re doing it, and why it’s working so well.
At Zoo Atlanta, even the resident salamander has agency. Before it’s transported in a travel carrier to visit schools, or different parts of the Zoo, the amphibian is given the choice of whether or not he wants to walk from his aquarium to his portable plastic box. The stakes: a tasty worm.
“We now realize it’s important for the animals to make that choice,” said Young. The same goes for the Zoo’s rabbits, which, in the past, were picked up and held during presentations. Now, they’re in a corral space and a kennel is always available for hiding. If a rabbit chooses to explore, the keeper will talk to guests about their curious nature. If it chooses to hide, the keeper talks about natural burrowing behavior.
Harriet, the screaming hairy armadillo, can even choose whether or not she’d like to be touched on any given day. She’s learned that if she climbs onto a little log platform, she’ll be rewarded with bugs and worms—and while she’s there, kids can touch her. If she leaves the platform, however, no touching is allowed.
“She can weigh that kind of interaction: are the bugs worth it for me to get touched right now?” said Young. “Or are the bugs not worth it?”
Young said that when guests learn that Harriet is making the choice to climb onto or off of the log, they appreciate that she’s given options—even if it means they don’t get to touch her. “They seem to get that she’s making the decision, and they’re ok with that,” said Young.
At Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, every ambassador animal—from the cockroaches to the kookaburra—has a say in what they do. While the cockroaches’ choices may be simple (opting for a dark enclosed space vs. a bright open space) compared with Adelaide, the laughing kookaburra (choosing to fly around freely during an amphitheater show or return to her home), all animals are given options according to their ability to choose.
Belair said the benefits to the choices are many: when visitors learn about the training, they’re getting a peek behind the scenes at the care and training that the animals receive; they’re also able to empathize with the importance of decision-making in day-to-day life. Plus, it keeps zoo work interesting: Belair and his team are always trying to figure out new ways to appeal to the animals and understand their preferences.
“We’re figuring out how to partner with our animals,” said Belair.
Perhaps the most relatable example of ambassador agency at Nashville Zoo is Fern the two-toed sloth. Fern doesn’t like waking up early in the morning, so the team does their best to arrange programming around her schedule. When that’s not possible, they give her the choice to wake up or to sleep in.
On those days, Belair arrives an hour early so he has time to rouse her gradually. He softly calls out her name and offers up her favorite treat: squash. He returns every five minutes until she’s either ready to get up, or has fully committed to going back to sleep.
“There are many days where Fern says I’m not coming out, and that’s just fine,” he said. They always have a contingency plan, and can work with another animal that doesn’t insist on sleeping in.
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., ambassador animals are selected based on whether or not they can choose to participate in programming.
“That’s one of the key things. To improve the welfare, the animal should choose to participate,” said Liz Evans, manager of behavioral husbandry and animal programs. “And if it’s an animal that doesn’t like to do programs or be touched then they’re probably not the best ambassador animal.”
One unique case in recent years was Oscar, a prehensile-tailed skink that came to the Aquarium as an ambassador animal. From the time Oscar arrived, however, it was clear that he didn’t like to be touched, and would flinch if anyone tried. In order to transport him into a display area without human contact, the team came up with a solution that didn’t involve handling: they present a cork log for him to climb on. If he doesn’t want to go to the log, it’s fine; if he does, he’s reinforced with grapes (his favorite snack) and taken to a presentation area. Once there, he has the option to remain on the log, explore different branches, or hide. When he returns to the cork log, it signals that Oscar is ready to go home.
Evans said that guests enjoy learning about the decisions that the animals are empowered to make.
“They’re used to seeing someone hold an animal or a bird on a glove, so it’s nice for them to see the animal have the freedom to move around and do what they want to do,” she said. “They understand that the animal is communicating its preferences.”
At Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., the behavioral team knows that when animals get to make choices, there are more opportunities to showcase natural behaviors for guests.
That’s been the case with Halo, the reticulated python. In the past, keepers would pick Halo up and place her on a table or platform. More recently, they’ve allowed her to make her own choices. For example, did she want to leave a crate that they’d rolled into the guest area? If not, she can stay coiled up within; if so, she can stretch out on the ground, climb a tree and coil up on a branch. In time, as Halo grew from eight feet to 14 feet long, she started spending more time on the ground and less time in the trees.
Michelle Skurski, who is zoological manager of behavioral husbandry, animal, science and environment, said that’s what you’d expect to see in the wild: young reticulated pythons keep themselves safe from predators by spending time in trees, and when they outgrow many of the threats, they choose the forest floor.
“That’s the kind of behaviors we want to show the guests,” said Skurski. “Because when are they going to get to see something like that?”
One of the challenges in training a large snake is finding a way to reinforce its behavior. With most species, food is the obvious reward. But pythons are carnivores and eat mammals, like rabbits, and it’s a process that can take hours. Instead, they placed an array of natural materials, like leaves, different types of wood and bark, and found that the varying textures seemed to be their own reward for Halo.
In order for animals to thrive, they must be presented with choices and have some kind of control over their environment. Because of that, those who work with ambassador animals are always on the lookout for new ways to communicate. Skurski has even gone so far as to help train a number of jumping spiders—including a star named Regina—to jump to a green laser.
If spiders can hop to a laser, and cockroaches can communicate, a whole world of animal agency exists. It just takes time, patience, reinforcement, and behavioral psychology to unlock the way an animal thinks.
“Until you start really trying to find out their motivation and their behaviors,” said Skurski, “You don’t really know what they’re capable of.”
Hero image: Oscar, the prehensile-tailed skink. Credit: ©National Aquarium
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.