Exotic Animal Training: The Constructional Approach to Addressing Extreme Fear and Aggressive Behavior

Barbara Heidenreich
Presentation given at the 2020 Conference

In zoological settings, we are training everything from snarling big cats to flighty herds of antelopes. Traditionally our first step has involved delivering preferred food items. But, some animals present such extreme fear responses or aggressive behavior in the presence of humans that food holds little value. Trying to use systematic desensitization and keeping animals below threshold can be challenging to apply due to enclosure design. And results are often slowly realized in these cases, if at all.

The constructional approach empowers animals to replace fear or aggressive behavior with desired responses. Usually within one or two sessions, the animal is approaching to accept desired items or experiences. When applying the constructional approach in zoos, we have a number of different challenges to address, such as enclosure design, limited visibility, needing to know the natural history of the species, and how to apply the protocol to a group of animals. This presentation will show video examples of how the constructional approach is helping a variety of species of animals commonly cared for in zoos.

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