UNT students improve quality of life of animals through animal training organization

Nicole Dorey
Master's student in behavioral analysis and ORCA coordinator at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville
Nicole Dorey
Master's student in behavioral analysis and ORCA coordinator at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville
Thursday, January 22, 2004

Animals in zoos are supposed to be wild creatures. The Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, however, faced a problem when its llamas ran from anyone who came within 10 or 20 yards of them. Zookeepers and veterinarians could not get close enough to interact with the animals.Members of the University of North Texas Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, or ORCA, are solving the problem by halter training the llamas.“It’s so important for animals in a zoo setting to be calm enough so they can be moved to a different enclosure at a moment’s notice or receive shots and medical exams without being tranquilized,” says Nicole Dorey, a UNT master’s student in behavioral analysis and ORCA coordinator. “Using anesthesia is detrimental to the health of an animal.”ORCA was founded in the fall of 1999 by Eddie Fernandez, a 2003 UNT graduate and now a doctoral student at Indiana University and a staff member of the university’s Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. When Fernandez founded ORCA at UNT, he was one of several new master’s students in behavior analysis interested in animal training. At the time, the Department of Behavior Analysis only required an animal training project as part of a class taught by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, associate professor of behavior analysis. “It seemed that very few academics in behavior analysis were making a career of working with such issues on an applied or research level. We decided to create animal training opportunities for ourselves,” Fernandez says.He points out that traditional animal training methods often force an animal into doing something, and the reward is release from having to do something.“One example is training a dog to work on a leash using a choker chain — if the dog veers off from where you are leading him, you snap the choker, and let go of the leash the second the dog comes back to your direction,” he says. “A lot of dog obedience schools use this method, but it may make an aggressive dog more aggressive.”ORCA, however, only uses reinforcement principles in training, rewarding animals for proper behavior with food and praise instead of punishing them for improper behavior. During the past four years, ORCA has worked with the Frank Buck Zoo, Animal Edutainment in Aubrey, Texas, and other sites throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, training animals ranging from La Mancha goats and a lemur to ostriches. The organization’s membership has included not only graduate and undergraduate students in behavior analysis, but students majoring in sociology, social work, psychology and biology. ORCA is the only organization of its kind at a Texas college or university and one of only three of its kind in the United States.UNT graduate student Andrea Gamble and other ORCA members worked with a female coatimundi — a member of the raccoon family indigenous to the Big Bend area and parts of southern Arizona — at Animal Edutainment, which presents animal programs at public schools. The young coatimundi fought and screeched whenever her keepers tried to put a leash on her, making it difficult for her keepers to take her to schools. “We target trained her so she would stay still for a certain amount of time. She was eventually trained to touch her nose to a target and hold still for 10 seconds, which was enough time to put a leash on her,” Gamble says. “I would say ‘Target,’ and sound a clicker, and when she stayed still for a certain amount of time, I gave her mealworms as a reward.” ORCA members also trained a ring-tailed lemur for Animal Edutainment. The lemur constantly bounced around in her cage, making it difficult for her keepers to put her in a crate and take her to schools, before she learned to touch a target on her cage and stay still.At the Frank Buck Zoo, ORCA members are not only halter training the llamas, but also working with a brown bear and black bear to do behaviors other than pacing in their enclosures.“Bears naturally pace when they forage in the wild, and when you put a bear in a captivity, it will also pace. Pacing has nothing to do with boredom,” Dorey says. “However, we’re also training them to shake a fake beehive, play with their toys in a pool and scratch a tree for zoo visitors.” Other projects ORCA has conducted for the Frank Buck Zoo include training two of ostriches to move on command from their regular pen to a holding pen and training the petting zoo’s sheep to not run from people and the La Mancha goats to be less aggressive toward people. The goats previously jumped on their keepers in unison, knocking them down and chewing their clothes.In ORCA’s first year, members traveled to Bequia, West Indies, for three weeks to observe several highly endangered St. Vincent Amazon parrots at an aviary and provide animal behavior knowledge to the staff of a sea turtle sanctuary. Gamble says ORCA opened up a new world for her.“I was a rehabilitation studies major when I was an undergraduate. After I had to take a behavioral analysis class for my degree program, I switched my major to behavior analysis. Then I found out about ORCA,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to work with animals. ORCA was perfect for me.”

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