21 Dec

Training Orangutans for Conservation

One of our Art and Science of Animal Training Conference speakers, Barbara Heidenreich, recently returned from a trip to Indonesia. Barbara has been partnering with Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Oregon Zoo to work on training and conservation projects with young orangutans.

We were thrilled when Barbara sent us a short report and some photos from her recent trip. You can hear even more about this fascinating project during Barbara’s lecture at our 2019 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. We still have some tickets available for the conference.

By Barbara Heidenreich
Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training

I have yet to meet a zoo professional who isn’t passionate about conservation. We seek ways to weave supporting conservation into our work, whether it is through education, messaging, working directly with ambassadors of wild counterparts, promoting in situ projects and so on. When the opportunity to utilize our expertise to directly impact conservation of wild species presents itself, it’s met with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Training has been embraced by the zoological community as an important element in providing optimal health and welfare. It can reduce or eliminate stress for medical care. It can make day to day care easier. It can address behavior problems and much more.

Training addresses those same needs in conservation projects. There are often animals that will require life long care and are managed much like other species in human care. It’s easy to see how training can be applied to improve the welfare of these residents who cannot be returned to the wild.

The fascinating opportunities that are being explored more now are the many ways in which training can be applied to benefit those animals being prepared for release or who are already in the wild. This is an area that presents numerous diverse scenarios in which experts in the animal training field can benefit wildlife and conservation.

I have had several opportunities to work with conservation projects and each presented unique behavior challenges and goals. A recent project involved working with orangutans at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. A main focus was working with young animals being schooled by humans as surrogate mothers to survive in the forest. This involves years of work. If problems arise that cannot be corrected it is possible that an individual may miss its window for release.

During the day, these young orphaned orangutans go to “forest school” to learn how to survive in the forest. With the help of human caregivers, they practice skills such as building nests and finding food. This photo shows them returning from forest school.

One problem we encountered was that some young animals were learning rough play at a young age and they would carry that throughout their development. As they become older and stronger this becomes dangerous for humans. These animals often become individuals who lose the chance at release. One of our tasks was to teach the surrogate mothers how to use training technology to teach these youngsters that other behaviors besides rough play resulted in desired consequences.

We also had some young orangutans with tragic backgrounds who had a difficult time being independent of their human caregivers. Teaching them independence through small approximations was another task.

The young orangutans must learn to stay in the forest by themselves. In this photo, Noni is learning that allowing her caregiver to move away from her results in desired consequences.

Often our training environment was the gorgeous forest of Borneo. However, some of our young orangutans preferred returning early to the buildings at home base instead of staying in the forest to practice their orangutan survival skills. So, another task was to teach duration for staying in the forest.

These behaviors, when broken down into their basic steps, are ones many trainers will find familiar. What makes them different is the environment, species and context. Yet the principles are the same. There are some adjustments we needed to make to the application to address our species and environment. It is very important to understand the natural history of the species you are training. Not only can an orangutan move horizontally, but it can move vertically, is stronger than you, has longer arms than you, can grab with hands and feet, and has a different social structure than other great apes.

Fortunately, our team of three consisted of experienced great ape and training experts and our job as consultants is to partner our knowledge with the knowledge of the experts at the conservation organization to reach the behavioral goals together.

As the young orangutans grow more independent they can graduate to a pre-release island. In this photo, Barbara releases a young female.

Our two trips to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (website) are an example of the way zoos are utilizing their skills, expertise and finances to support conservation of species in the wild. Oregon Zoo sponsored these trips by sending two staff members and me. They also sent numerous medical and training supplies. The long-term goal is to provide ongoing support with regular visits to help establish a solid training program.

To see gorgeous footage of training baby orangutans in the Indonesian rainforest and to learn more about the many other behaviors addressed, come see the live presentation at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference!

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