Sunday, February 24, 2013

The tuft

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  I've finished moving from North Carolina to Atlanta, though I still have much to go through and get rid of.  Life's been kind of crazy lately.

In the process of packing, I came across a small plastic container with some lemur fur.  While attending Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training & Management program, I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to the school's two ring-tailed lemurs, Obi and Janga.  Though we had many adventures over the course of the year, this brief memory comes from the very end of our relationship.  On one of my last days in the program, Janga put Obi in his place when a few classmates and I were standing nearby.  (Female dominance is the norm among many species of lemur, and especially ring-tailed lemurs.)  Following the brief spat, a tuft of Obi's fur drifted our way, and my co-trainer, Rebekah, caught it.  Knowing that it would hold a lot of meaning for me, she handed it to me and said, "Something to remember Obi by."  Indeed, it's the only physical reminder I have of my best friend.  The photos and videos I took over the course of our year together are priceless, but that small tuft of grey and brown fur is certainly one of my most cherished possessions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And it's Neal by a nose!

Today was my last official day as a seasonal keeper in Primates at Zoo Atlanta, and therefore my last day working with their lemurs.  :-(  We had two training sessions today, and the honor of "top performer" goes to Neal!  It was closer than I expected.  This morning Ringo was as sharp as a tack and moved up to the point of correctly distinguishing his target stick from the other three.  Unlike Neal, though, Ringo wasn't able to maintain the consistency in the afternoon and regressed, making Neal the clear winner.  Jason finished not too far behind, still as confident as before, but not as good on distinguishing.  Julius continued to make very slow, steady progress, but never reached the point of learning to distinguish targets.  Good luck to the other primate trainers as they take over their training!  The Primates department is loaded with skilled keepers, so I know they are in good hands.

In truth, my days at Zoo Atlanta are not over.  Starting sometime next week, I will be a seasonal keeper with Birds, and I may even continue helping out with Primates.  The details have yet to be worked out.  But for now, this post will conclude the daily updates on the Zoo Atlanta lemurs.  If I remember any other good stories to tell, I will certainly share them.  In the meantime, I have many, many stories to tell about two very special ring-tailed lemurs: Obi & Janga.  I'll try to share one later this weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Approaching the finish line

With only one day left to train the ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta, today's training session felt like a pivotal moment in my two weeks of lemur training.  As we approach the finish line, one lemur holds a clear lead: Neal!  Although Jason and Ringo are doing very well, and even Julius is starting to make progress, Neal may actually satisfy my idealistic training goals by tomorrow afternoon.

This afternoon, with the help of Alicia, one of my fellow keepers, we put Neal to the test--first discovering that he would follow his target stick if held by someone other than me, and then watching him distinguish between three of the target sticks, each held far apart.  Tomorrow, I hope to test with all four target sticks, and if he gets that, he will have mastered my targeting goals!  Furthermore, Neal has also demonstrated that he can return to his station with only a verbal command (without the trainer touching the carabiner).  This is excellent news, since I had been concerned that the ring-tailed lemurs might have problems with a mobile station, given their difficulties with object permanence problems.  Neal has shown that with careful training and a very attentive lemur, many great things are possible.  Go Neal!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Neal. Target!

The ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta never cease to amaze me.  During today's two training sessions, all four made good progress, including troublesome Julius.  Jason is showing increased confidence, strong stationing and targeting behavior, and has even shown great promise at differentiating his target stick from the target sticks of others.  (The latter is a newly introduced criteria, and he seemed to get the idea almost immediately.)  Ringo is now back on track and demonstrating his ability to differentiate target sticks.  Of course, he's always been strong on stationing (grabbing the carabiner hooked to the cage mesh)--the trick will be to get him to stop offering the behavior when I'm not asking for it.  Julius' targeting behavior, on the other hand, is still poor (at best), but he is finally getting the idea of the carabiner and stationing.  Finally, progress!

Once again, Neal is leaping ahead.  Today, he was showing very strong ability to differentiate targets, and even had no problem distinguishing between his target (a stick with a heart on the end) vs. Jason's target (a stick with a circle).  The shapes are similar, and up until now, I had only asked him to distinguish his heart from either Julius' square or Ringo's triangle--both with sharp edges and no round edges.  Tomorrow, if I have help, I hope to give Neal the ultimate test: asking him to target using all four target sticks simultaneously.  If he can distinguish his target stick from the other three, then he will have completed all the training I had planned--all in less than 2 weeks!!

If that wasn't enough, Neal did something even better today.  For those of you familiar with my December Keeper Blog for Zoo Atlanta (reposted below with permission), it is well known that Neal is notoriously bad about coming inside at the end of the day.  Well, today I used his target stick, called "target", and Neal jumped up and came inside immediately to train.  Victory!!  Although he first ignored the carabiner (his "station" behavior), we may now have a way to bring Neal in and save a lot of time in the afternoon.  I hope with all my heart that these extra few minutes in the afternoon can now be converted to training sessions--a win-win for both keepers and lemurs.  Hopefully he does this again tomorrow!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Go Jason!

While training lemurs today at Zoo Atlanta, Jason showed some amazing improvements  When I first started training the four ring-tailed lemurs about a week ago, Jason was the slowest.  Being close to the bottom of the pecking order, he was hesitant about coming down from the highest branch and was easily frightened whenever I told him "good" just before rewarding him with fruit.  For nearly a week, I was worried that I would make no progress with him, but during the training session just prior to my weekend and the one today, he seemed calm and confident on the floor, went to his target stick when asked, and even succeeded in grabbing the carabiner on the side of the mesh--a "stationing behavior", which will help us get him to sit still in one place.

Of the other three lemurs, Neal and Ringo are still doing very well, with Neal showing great promise in distinguishing his target stick (with a heart-shaped tip) from those of the other three lemurs.  Julius is still a problem, though.  He has never been very trusting of me, though he will come over to me and wait for treats.  With only three days left in my seasonal employment, I'm still hoping for a breakthrough with him.  But today... Go Jason!!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Neal @ Zoo Atlanta

To start my blog off, I thought I'd share another blog post that I wrote for Zoo Atlanta back in December 2012.  I have been working at Zoo Atlanta since October 2012 as a Seasonal Keeper in Primates--primarily with lemurs and gorillas.  This is a story about Neal, my favorite ring-tailed lemur.  Neal's personality reminds me a lot of Obi, another very special ring-tail who followers of this blog will learn more about as time goes on.

Thursday, December 20, 2012
When I was a kid, I hated being called indoors and locked in for the night.  My mother always called us in for dinner when the sun was still out, and I felt I was losing valuable play time, so needless to say I was a bit resistant to her calls. Now as a lemur keeper at Zoo Atlanta, I get to fill my mother's shoes and deal with someone stuck in the same dilemma: a ring-tailed lemur named Neal. Ring-tailed lemurs are primates from the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa. They are easily recognized by their black-and-white striped tails. They live in large female-dominated social groups and love to sunbathe in order to warm up when it is cool outside.

Of the four ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta, Neal is one of the most independent. Ring-tailed lemurs are biologically driven to stay close to their troop, so when the three others – Ringo, Julius and Jason – come inside for the night, Neal usually comes over and sits just outside the window. With his back to me and the troop, he often sits calmly, staring out into the yard serenely and savoring the open air and last rays of the afternoon sun. Meanwhile, all I see is his back, and I get an occasional glimpse from over his shoulder along with a look that says that I have got to be kidding about coming in for the night. Even if I could explain to him that it gets too cold at night for him to stay outside in the winter, I doubt he would care. At moments like that, I am certain that he knows he has the yard to himself and that he is enjoying some quiet time alone. It is impossible to compete with that.
Although my mother might call this payback, I lose a lot of valuable time in the afternoon due to this behavior. In the future, we would like to train him to come inside using positive reinforcement. But for now, Neal will enjoy his much-earned quiet time in the window sill, free of the lemur drama that dominates the rest of the day. Seeing the tranquility in his relaxed posture and calm facial expression, I must admit: I envy him.
Alex Dunkel 
Seasonal Keeper I, Primates 

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