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Operant conditioning at the NC Zoo Category: Brain & Behavior News Posted on: September 22, 2008 8:36 AM, by Dave Munger You might think the zoo is an odd place for psychology bloggers to meet up. But on Saturday not only did Greta and I get a chance to connect with some of our readers and fellow bloggers, we also received some fascinating insight into the psychology of zookeeping. Our group toured the North Carolina Zoo, led by Jayne Owen Parker, Ph.D., the Director of Conservation Education of the Zoo Society. As we strolled from exhibit to exhibit and listened to Jayne's comments, we were struck by how frequently psychology enters into the daily routine of managing a zoo. Through operant conditioning , the animals are trained to assist the zookeepers in practically every zoo function, from feeding, to grooming, to medication and contraception. Operant conditioning is simply the use of rewards and punishment to modify behavior, and examples of this process abound at the zoo. When Jim and Nora were younger, we visited the zoo quite regularly, and one of our favorite animals was the elephant (or "Dumbo" as our kids called them). But the NC Zoo provides the elephants with a generous enclosure, and it seemed that every time we visited, they were at the far end of their space, to the consternation of children who wanted to get a close look. Don't elephants like toddlers? On Saturday, we were excited to see an elephant right up near the viewing area: Jayne told us that this wasn't a coincidence. In the last decade, zookeepers realized that their feeding schedule was affecting the elephants' behavior. Every day at closing time, they let the elephants into the barn for feeding. For several hours, as feeding time approached, the hungry pachyderms gradually sidled towards the gate, so they'd get their food as soon as the gate opened. So the zoo placed a new gate near the front of the enclosure, and now at the end of the day the elephants go through that gate and then back through a chute to the barn to get fed. So now the elephants sidle towards the excited zoo visitors in anticipation of dinner, and everyone is happy! (By the way, there's a great article on elephants in this month's National Geographic.) At the elk and bison exhibit, Jayne explained that these animals would be content to remain in their large "prairie" enclosure day and night, year-round, even in rain, snow, and sleet. But the keepers occasionally do need to get the animals into the barn, for instance if a tornado or hurricane is approaching. So they trained all the animals to respond to a sound tornado or hurricane is approaching.... View Full Document

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