Heard Museum's "Birds of a Feather" award recognizes UNT students' animal training services

Dignan, Rulla and Foss
Left to right: Kat Dignan, Emily Rulla and Erica Foss: UNT students of behavior analysis involved in ORCA (Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals) receive the "Birds of a Feather" award for animal training services from the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Heard Lemurs
Regan Garden, student of behavior analysis at UNT, trains Pops, a resident ring-tailed lemur at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary
Heard Lemurs
Pops, a resident ring-tailed lemur at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Heard Lemurs
Uno, a resident ring-tailed lemur at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, holds a ring toy while being trained by UNT students involved in ORCA (Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals)
Friday, March 21, 2014 - 13:22

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Pops and Uno did not always cooperate with the museum staff at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas. They would run away and play rather than follow directions. Fortunately, University of North Texas students of behavior analysis found ways to train the precocious ring-tailed lemurs and teach these techniques to staff who work with the primates on a daily basis.

The Heard Museum is a refuge for animals, many of which were abandoned or taken from the wild and need proper care. The museum recently recognized UNT students and their professor, animal behavioral expert Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, with a "Birds of a Feather" annual award, a commemorative plaque given this year for the students' outstanding training solutions and long-term service on behalf of the animals.

"Our collaboration with the Heard museum is an all-around win-win situation. It is an enriching educational experience for the students, and the community also benefits," said Rosales-Ruiz.

In the case of Pops and Uno, the students successfully used "clicker" training in combination with positive reinforcement to teach practical tasks. The mechanical devices mark desirable behavior with a "click" and a reward, typically food or toys, which become associated with the target behavior. This process takes time, patience and repetition, but Pops and Uno are learning how to walk into their crates without making a fuss. Crating is necessary to transport the animals from outdoor to indoor enclosures during cold and warm weather months and for veterinary services, and it is much less stressful if they go into the pens voluntarily without being chased or held, said Emily Rulla, the Heard team coordinator and third-year graduate student of behavior analysis.

The Heard outreach is part of ORCA, the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, a not-for-profit UNT student organization founded in 2000 and advised by Rosales-Ruiz whose mission is to improve the well-being of animals and their guardians through behavior analytic research and to make these discoveries available to the public. Community service and collaborations with zoos and sanctuaries are central to the work, and ORCA produces an annual conference that brings together experts, students and the public for a conversation about advances in animal welfare and training.

Since 2005 ORCA students have introduced a spectrum of creative animal husbandry training programs at the Heard Museum for the lemurs and other resident animals, which include Patagonian cavies, capybaras, raccoons, mongooses, opossums and macaws.

"It's fulfilling to help both the staff and the animals. It's a great experience for everyone," said Rulla. "As trainers, we need to be flexible to the animal and the situation. The partnership with Heard gives us the latitude to design training programs based on the museum's needs and then apply these with the animals."

When team member Erica Foss attended a national behavior analysis convention, she could not have imagined that it would inspire her to train exotic animals while pursuing an advanced degree in behavior analysis at UNT. Now a second-year master's student of behavior analysis, her work with Rosales-Ruiz and his hallmark ORCA program has given her a solid foundation of expertise.

"Jesús has a unique way of looking at the world," said Foss. "He is especially good at helping students arrive at their own training solutions. What I dig is that we're getting better at making simple decisions that yield big results."

ORCA students also address animal eating and behavioral issues, assess the safety, comfort and enrichment of exhibit habitats, and teach station training -- "sit and stay" techniques in which the animals learn to wait in a designated area.

"We are experiencing some of the most dedicated ORCA students yet," said Michelle Dudas, natural sciences curator at the Heard. "Not only do they train the lemurs, they provide wonderful educational opportunities for animal curation staff. Pops and Uno, our ring-tailed lemurs, get very excited and begin vocalizing as soon as they become aware that ORCA is in the house."

This news release was written by Julie West.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108