Providing excellent health care for the hundreds of animals at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo comes in many forms. Depending on their individual needs, animals might receive special diets, exercise plans, laser therapy treatments, vaccines, medications and more. Their health care plans often involve injections, both proactively in the form of annual vaccinations, and reactively with medications that can help them through an illness or injury.
Most CMZoo animals participate in voluntary injection training, designed to help keepers and animals prepare for and reduce stress involved with real injections when necessary. Some CMZoo animals participate in their own health care by also taking part in voluntary blood draws. During injection and blood draw training, the animals have the opportunity to walk away at any time but typically choose to stay and participate. These blood draws allow vets to test animals for any issues and respond to them accurately. The blood draws also contribute to national and international research projects that benefit countless species in human care and in the wild.
Through these voluntary blood draws, CMZoo is able to contribute to a giraffe blood plasma bank. The plasma bank is shared with other AZA-accredited institutions, and can help giraffe calves who are struggling to survive in their first days.
Just as Children’s Hospital Colorado provides tips to help children overcome the fear of shots, CMZoo Animal Behavior Programs Manager Rick Hester shared his approach to helping CMZoo’s animals respond comfortably to necessary injections and blood draws.
- Teach prerequisite skills first.
Before we ever get to needles, we teach animals to present various body parts to us, hold still, and allow us to touch them with various benign objects, like our hand, a key, or a stick. These are some of the necessary skills for them to succeed when we need to give a real injection or perform a blood draw.
- Arrange the environment.
We look at the overall environment and arrange everything for the animal to be successful. A comfortable place to sit or stand, an easy way for us to deliver food treats, limiting noise or other distractions if possible — these are all examples of ways we arrange the environment for success.
- Find the right reinforcers.
Our training program focuses on positive reinforcement techniques. To be successful, we need to have the right reinforcers, depending on the animal and depending on the behavior we are teaching. For behaviors like holding still for an injection or a blood draw, we use high-value food items such as fruit snacks for an orangutan, marshmallows for an African elephant, or chicken for an African lion.
- Celebrate small steps towards the goal.
We would rarely be successful if we expected an animal to present its shoulder and let us give them a vaccination during our very first training session! We reinforce small approximations (what some might call “baby steps”) to get them to the final goal. For example, they could start by presenting their shoulder to a keeper’s hand, then a stick or a pen, then finally a syringe. We reinforce each successful step or approximation and move forward to the next as the animal performs each step confidently. This style of teaching provides the animal with a lot of information about how to be successful and builds their confidence quickly.
- Prepare the site.
For some species, we apply ice to the injection site prior to giving a vaccination or performing a blood draw. This helps reduce the response to the needle poke for some animals.
- Follow the animals’ lead.
Do we have to give the injection in the shoulder if an individual seems more comfortable presenting a hip or leg? We let the animal’s behavior influence what the final goal looks like in all of our training. In this way, our training is a dialogue between humans and animals, helping to set both up for success.