Wrapping up an Incredible Experience

I’m so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to be an intern at Southwick’s Zoo this summer! I’ve been able to accomplish my original learning goals while gaining valuable insights along the way. I’ve had the opportunity to work with almost all of the intern birds and in depth with a specific few. This has allowed me to gain real-world experience in training and conditioning behaviors, and I’ve been able to do more than I expected.

The beautiful female eclectus parrot Amber Rose

I’m still implementing a training project I drafted for one of the birds, Kiki, in order to stethoscope-train her so that she’s comfortable with having a stethoscope on her chest during veterinary exams. The process of designing her training plan was useful in and of itself, because it taught me how to break down behavioral training into achievable steps. Inevitably, unanticipated deviations happened almost immediately that I then had to problem-solve. For example, Kiki has a habit of bobbing up and down between cued behaviors, which causes her to become distracted and makes training more difficult. I found I had to start training a different cue to help keep her calm and still between cues so that training could progress. The progress I’ve made with her will be continued by staff members after my internship ends, but it is rewarding to have started her down this path.

A very silly Emu

Another goal I fulfilled was contributing to education about wildlife conservation. In addition to outreach during the shows, I also participated in EARTH Awareness Day on August 6th, where groups of interns made projects centered around any pressing conservation issue. My group chose to talk about how dangerous the illegal pet trade is for the captured animals themselves, the humans who attempt to keep them as pets, and the environment on a larger scale. For this project, I spent a great deal of time researching this issue and how it intersects with other environmental issues. We centered our discussion around a specific species, the cotton-top tamarin, which is critically endangered (there are only about 2,000 mature individuals left). They not only have been taken for the pet trade (and used as test subjects in colon cancer studies), but also have been severely impacted by deforestation and urban sprawl. My group put together a poster presentation as well as creating three interactive activities. We presented this to the public all day, and I enjoyed talking to people about this issue. We were able to talk about ways to help, and for those interested in concretely helping cotton-top tamarins, we encouraged them to look into Proyecto Tití, an organization that specifically focuses on aiding this species. It was nice to see how receptive zoo visitors were and to see them enjoying our activities.

Pongo, a red-legged seriema

In addition to gaining skills and experience in both the animal care and conservation outreach areas, I’ve also gained insight about my learning style in the workplace. Figuring out how I take in and process information has been helpful, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone has helped me feel more confident and capable. For example, now I’m able to comfortably stand on a stage in front of a large crowd and give informal presentations. Overcoming my fear like this has taught me that as long as I do something I initially find intimidating a few times, I become desensitized to the feeling and can move past it more quickly than I realized. This lesson will stay with me as I move forward.

For anyone interested in pursuing an internship at Southwick’s Zoo, I highly recommend it. One practical piece of advice I’d give for those doing a summer internship is to stay hydrated! Half the day at work is spent outside where it’s insanely hot, and the other half is inside (where it’s actually even hotter). So drink a lot and be prepared to sweat a lot! Also, be prepared for longer hours than expected in the beginning of the internship. It takes a fair amount of time to learn the specific terminology used and to learn how to perform a plethora of niche tasks both efficiently and quickly. There are also different protocols for indoor vs. outdoor husbandry, and even different rules for each specific bird, so the days often ran long for the first few weeks. You don’t clock out until you ensure all tasks are complete and the animals are cared for (as it should be, because their well-being depends on it), so having a flexible schedule is necessary. It’s also good to be aware that despite being fun and rewarding, working in the animal care field isn’t always glamorous. Most of the day is manual work, and while it may not be lifting heavy weights all the time (which depends on the department and what animals you’re working with), it is still constant movement and a lot of crouching in awkward spaces. A large part of husbandry is cleaning poop, so if you have a sensitive nose or get easily grossed out, be prepared!

Glamorous or not, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this internship. It has been impactful and has helped clarify my career direction. My interest in animals started before the internship, but I didn’t anticipate just how much I’d enjoy working with them! I really loved bonding with the animals and being part of a team that helps make sure they have the best care possible. Educating the public and contributing to conservation efforts was also a meaningful pursuit for me. I am enormously grateful to the W.O.W fellowship for helping to support me during this incredible experience! 

All the bird interns together — we received paper plate awards with a feather from the bird our supervisors thought matched our personalities the best. I received the honor of a Pongo feather!

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!

Wildlife Care and Conservation with EARTH Limited

This summer, I’m excited to have the opportunity to be a part of EARTH Limited’s internship program at Southwick’s Zoo, located in Mendon, MA. EARTH Ltd is a non-profit organization whose mission is to aid in conservation efforts by educating and inspiring the public to care about preserving our planet and the wildlife within it. I will be able to participate in this education by assisting in animal behavior shows and an end-of-internship project, where I will create an interactive display on a conservation issue of my choice to educate zoo visitors about. This is exciting for me, as one of my major goals going into this internship was to directly contribute to wildlife conservation.

My work is within the zoo’s bird department. I carry out the birds’ husbandry, clean their enclosures, prepare species-specific diets, create enrichment, assist during educational presentations and answer questions the public may have before and after shows. All of this work centers around keeping the birds healthy and happy, as well as educating our guests.

We care for 20 different bird species within the bird department (over 30 individuals). The majority of our birds are parrots and macaws, who mostly live in the “inside” area of the zoo. All of them have their own distinct personalities, along with different voices. Many of the species are masters of mimicry. Fun fact: this is due to an organ called the syrinx, which allows them to copy sounds they hear in order to socialize. While humans have a two-folded larynx, their four-folded syrinx allows them to copy what they hear around them, from human phonemes (like “hello!” and “what ya doin?”) to meows and even water bubbling in a pot!

In addition to the birds based mostly in the private zoo areas, the larger species we take care of live in their outside exhibits, like the baby emus, Eurasian Eagle Owls, and Red-Legged Seriemas. One of the major goals with our baby emus is to socialize them and get them used to being around humans, which has certainly worked out well as they flock around me every time I enter their enclosure! Regardless of species, our department is always focused on conditioning positive behaviors, along with enrichment. The purpose of enrichment is to reinforce natural behaviors like scavenging, which decreases boredom and stress. Each bird has their own specificities. Some need different materials, different reinforcing treats and different levels of complexity, and we keep track of all of this.

I’ve enjoyed participating in the two daily bird shows, which showcase some of our birds and their talents, along with bringing light to our endangered bird species and how to help. We close out each show by raising money to donate to an organization called Asociación Armonía that builds homes for the critically endangered blue-throated macaws. Additionally, I’ve enjoyed beginning to build bonds with the birds, something which is also essential to training them. I’ve already gotten to see training in action by some of my supervisors and have participated in training sessions myself. Here’s a quick video of my training with Pongo.

Right now, my focus is reinforcing present behaviors that they perform in shows, like their vocals (for example: when I ask “can you say hello?” the bird responds with “hello!”, or if I say “where’s the fire?” the bird will make a firetruck sound). All the show birds have different vocals and skills they perform, so I’m currently helping in rewarding those behaviors so they’re motivated to continue doing them. These sessions have been fantastic, and have allowed me to bring my classroom knowledge of classical and operant conditioning, learning, and reinforcement into the real world. 

My overarching goal for the summer is to help solidify my career interests. I want to use this incredible opportunity to the fullest by continuing to gain skills in animal care and management, along with wildlife conservation outreach. I’m excited for all that lies ahead!

– Ori Cohen