I was asked to train an adult female Bengal tigress, who had come to distrust humans in general. She was so suspicious that she would not even enter the night room if there were people in the corridor, There can be no doubt that if by some dreadful mistake someone happened to be in the enclosure with one of these tigers, they would never get out alive. Most wild animals are extremely reactive, and would probably maim you before they were even aware of what they were doing.
I was asked to get a number of behaviours from this tigress by her keeper – she needed to be taught to enter her night enclosure without exhibiting fear or trying to intimidate the keepers. A charging tiger is a terrifying experience to have to face, even with stout bars between one. The first time she charged me it was over before it began – she rushed into the night room screaming her head off, threw herself at the bars level with my head and then disappeared again, the whole process taking about 3 seconds. Bearing in mind that one swat of her paw could kill you, let alone getting chomped between those fearsome jaws, it was not an experience for the feint hearted. And of course if you show fear, you’ve virtually lost the game before it has even started. And so I started to clicker train her…….
Once she was comfortable coming in to the night room (this took two sessions, each of about half an hour), she had to learn to stand on her back legs with her front legs extended above her body. This was so that her stomach and paws could be examined without the necessity of darting (*2) her. Similarly we taught her to lie down close against the bars so that her back and face were clearly visible, and to roll over on her side. She also learned to open her mouth wide and keep it open for a minimum of 10 seconds at a time so that her teeth could be examined.
With clicker training, the training process actually progresses amazingly quickly. The first thing to do is to learn something about the species you are working with – what are its likes and dislikes, what does one need to be aware of, what does the animal like to eat, etc. In the case of the tigress, she was initially frightened by humans in or near her night enclosure. So to get her more relaxed and happy to enter the night room, we simply placed food inside where she could clearly see it from her outside run. The keeper and I would be standing in the corridor running alongside all the night enclosures, positioning ourselves just behind the meat. (and behind the reinforced bars). At all times we and the food were clearly visible to the tigress should she choose to look through the door. The moment the tigress put her head into the night room to see what was what, we would leave. Very quickly she learned that when she entered the night room, we left and she found some tasty meat. The clicker was clicked whilst she ate her meat, thus giving her the association of the sound with something pleasurable (initially our absence and her feeding). After that trust has been established, training went very fast. She learnt to stand on her back legs on cue in about 10 minutes (in this case the cue was a hand held as high as possible on the bars). Even when we stood on tip toe with our hands extended as far about our heads as we could reach, the tigress was far taller than us. Each time she attempted a desired behaviour, she was clicked and treated with a piece of meat impaled on a long stick and pushed through the bars towards her. After about four training sessions, she would come eagerly into the night room to see what cunning trick we had for her to solve today.
This training proved very useful, as the keeper was able to pick up a problem with her eye (a scratch caused by one of the other tigers or a stick), and this was then treated with antibiotics in her food before it became infected and caused a problem. It is interesting to note that once an animal has learned the association between the click and treat, it starts to think about what it is doing to earn the treat. This thinking process in itself often becomes rewarding for the animal, and they really look forward to being given a puzzle to solve to get us to give them their click and treat.
(*2) Darting – a process of shooting the animal with a dart loaded with a sedative. This process can be stressful for the animal, and often results in issues of fear and distrust of humans.