More from Southwick’s Zoo!

Ben (hyacinth macaw) on a t-perch, ready for the walk home!

I’m enjoying and appreciating this experience far more than I could have imagined. I love going into work and getting to train and handle so many birds, each with their own personality and quirks. They all have different preferences for people. Some are friendly to the point where they’ll shun older trainers in favor of spending time with the new interns (aka Ben, an absolute sweetheart of a hyacinth macaw). Others are more selective in picking favorites, and some seem to randomly pick the people they dislike. Most fall somewhere in between that spectrum, but one thing remains true: forming and maintaining a positive relationship takes a lot of training and time. The work is definitely worth it, because the feeling of officially gaining one of the bird’s trust is incredible.

I feel like my academic learning set me up for success by giving me the ability to understand the language of training animals (like classical and operant conditioning), but in this internship those concepts are applied and expanded. For example, in textbooks, conditioning behaviors are laid out in fairly simplistic and linear terms, whereas the actual real life process is much more nuanced. Getting to the target behavior can be involved, and the classroom setting can’t encapsulate how you are working with the animal you’re training.

Sydney (harlequin macaw)

One of the most important lessons in reinforcement learning is that oftentimes the animal will say no and you have to respect that and either end a training session or give them time to refocus. In fact, even just to begin training, you must be attuned to the individual’s body language to recognize whether they’re distracted or actually motivated to work. This starts becoming intuitive over time, but there is certainly far more adaptability and modifications needed than what comes across in textbooks. It’s rewarding work though, because each successful demonstration of the behavior physically shows the culmination of both your efforts as a trainer and the effort the animal has put into learning and practicing it. 

Here’s a video of my training in action. In this clip, I cue for Zeus to bob his head by saying “can you get excited?” while bobbing my head. Then, once he’s responded, I ask “how excited?” while making a flashing hand motion, which signals for him to flap his wings.

In addition to gaining experience in behavioral training, I’m continuing to build other concrete skills that will be helpful in many ways as I go forward. Proper handling of the animals, husbandry tasks, and enrichment will serve me well in any animal-care related career. I’ve also gained broadly applicable skills that are helpful in any work environment, like better time management, greater adaptability, and self-sufficiency (being aware of what tasks best help the flow of the day and self-directing those tasks).

Ernie (male eclectus parrot)

This internship is also the first opportunity I’ve had to interact with larger groups of people. While it initially was very intimidating to stand onstage in front of a crowd, now I can stand up there with ease and am able to comfortably communicate with visitors and answer any questions they may ask. Just last week, a school group was upset to have barely missed the final show of the day. I was offstage in the arena training one of the birds and began answering some general questions they had about some of our birds who were on the stage. Seeing their disappointment at not getting to hear any of the birds talk, I grabbed the mic, went on stage, and cued one of our birds to say hi. While I was walking back, I overheard one of the young kids in the group exclaim “that’s so cool!!” and start talking ecstatically to his friends, which absolutely made my day. That kid’s excitement matches my own – it’s so cool to work with the birds, and I’m incredibly grateful that I have this opportunity to expand my knowledge and capabilities at the same time!