Giraffe Training: A TALL Order

June 19, 2021

At Seneca Park Zoo, positive reinforcement training is a critical part of our interactions with the animals – it’s good for them and helps us take better care of them. Each species and each individual brings different challenges that we have to work through. With the height of a giraffe, two trainers are needed.  As the primary trainer, Lindsay positions herself at the giraffe’s head communicating to the giraffe on what we want them to do and providing the rewards for the correct behaviors.  The secondary trainer, Jenna, simultaneously interacts with the giraffe and communicates to Lindsay what is needed from the giraffe so that they can be reinforced at the right times.  Because the two trainers usually cannot see each other, their communication is key to getting the giraffe to perform the correct behavior.

All the Giraffes are trained to present both front feet on a “hoof block”.  This allows us to file their hooves.  When the Giraffes present the correct hoof, a whistle lets them know they did the correct behavior, and they receive an immediate reward of a piece carrot or a handful of grain.  When the secondary trainer approaches the Giraffe’s hoof and starts filing the hoof the Giraffe is rewarded continuously.  Using this behavior as a foundation, we moved on to a blood draw from the giraffes’ fetlock, or the upper knuckle of the foot, as a large vein runs along this area. As we developed this behavior, we had to work with the giraffes’ preferences. For example, Parker and Kipenzi seem more comfortable presenting their right hoof while Iggy is more comfortable presenting her left hoof.

As the secondary trainer, Jenna “desensitized” each giraffe to a “poke” on the large vein on the fetlock. We kept the steps simple, working from just pushing on the vein with a finger to using a hoof pick to poke the vein. This is a tool that they are used to seeing for their foot care, so touching them with it was already familiar to them. Lastly, after little to no reaction to the other stimuli, a needle was used for the blood draw. The prick of a needle is very similar to the bite of a fly to the giraffe, so as long as they were rewarded with the grain at the proper timing, the giraffes have little to no response! While the blood is being collected, the giraffe enjoys the grain until they choose to leave the session!

Photo by Sarah Koopman

This behavior is so important for a number of reasons. First, it gives us a good picture of the health of each giraffe. We can see the number of each type of cell in the blood, and get information about their kidney, liver, and other organs’ function. Second, we can store plasma and blood from our giraffes that might be needed in case of a health problem, either in our giraffe here at Seneca Park Zoo or as part of the Giraffe Blood Bank, a group of accredited zoos who have agreed to provide blood products to other zoos. Finally, blood donation helps us our giraffe contribute to the conservation of giraffe in the wild. For example, we are contributing a study examining genetics of giraffe spot patterns and how it impacts survival in the wild.

– Zoologist Jenna Bovee, Assistant Curator Lindsay Brinda & Assistant Zoo Director Dr. Louis Divincenti

* Banner photo by Walter Brooks