Friday, August 28, 2009


Enrichment of captive animals is essential to keep them happy and healthy. Broadly, enrichment can be behavioural and environmental. For reptiles, environmental enrichment is most common, although I haven't seen a lot in Indian zoos unfortunately. This enrichment typically includes providing a close to nature habitat (environment) and other physical components that will encourage and allow natural behaviour; for eg. perches, logs, rocks, misting, waterfall, different smells, leaf litter, etc. This article will revolve around behavioural enrichment of crocodiles. "Training" as a part of behavioural enrichment had been the most successful tool. It allows the animals to 'do something' and hence gives some relief from the otherwise extremely boring life in captivity. I will talk more about this as we proceed.

“We should start training our crocodiles” mentioned Ralf Sommerlad (Croc expert from Germany and ex-director - MCBT) one day. I was not sure how to react. Train crocodiles? Really? What does he possibly mean by that?
I was amazed by just the thought (if it is possible at all). I knew training was possible to a certain extent with lizards; monitors especially. I had tried my hands on monitors earlier but never really got into it. I also recalled a video on youtube of a guy who had managed to train a Box turtle! Of course it took him a long time; 9 years! But still he did train a turtle. But how would crocs do? I was not sure about the whole training thing. I started thinking maybe it’s just behavioral conditioning and not “training” as you do with dogs. I had loads of logical questions to which Ralf would patiently answer.
“Would you like to try training a few crocs and see it for yourself?” Ralf asked one day.
“Oh yes! I’d love to do that” I was very happy with that offer. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information available on how to train crocs. “This is still an upcoming trend in zoos keeping reptiles” Ralf would say. Sure it was. I had heard about it for the first time. Ralf guided a lot in the initial days.

“Once you get the hold of it, you will have to take it forward your way” He would say.

We started looking for ideal candidates for training. Nikhil (Curator - MCBT) suggested trying out the sub-adults (of five species) that were recently transferred to a large enclosure from nursery. Good Idea.

Target group - sub-adults of five species

I started working with Ally, the female sub-adult American Alligator, as she was already reacting to her name. She was handled regularly when she was smaller. People would call out her name all the time so she kind of knew her name. But now she was not handled for a long time. The first thing to do was to win her trust.

Crocodiles in general are quite shy animals. It is only with some behavioral conditioning (associate a particular activity, on completion of which animal gets a reward – usually food) that they become a bit bold. Young animals are even more wary. They probably see humans as predators and here in a captive scenario, a source of food, nothing more. Winning trust of such animals is surely a bit tricky.

Me trying to win Ally's trust

“Ally come” I would shout showing her a fish to lure her. Command words are very critical. The main idea is to associate certain activities to a cue, sometimes a combination of cues. Once they perform the activity, they get a reward – in this case red meat. This is taking behavioral conditioning to the next level where you can get a croc to do almost anything that it is physically capable of doing. I choose my words carefully. Cues can be vocal, visual and touch. I never knew these things till I actually saw them reacting to everything. “You should never mix up the cues or you’ll confuse them ” Ralf advised.

Anyway, getting back to Ally’s training, “You will first have to reinforce her association with her name. She should react every time you call her” said Ralf. And how do you do that? “Call her name and reward her with a piece of meat”. So here I go calling her “Ally” and throwing a piece of meat, which she gulped down really fast.  After a couple of days, she came to the water’s edge when called. That was amazing. She was reacting to her name so well! I was excited.

Regularity is one more important factor. When starting such a training program, the key is to do it very regularly, almost every day. On day four, Ally came out of the water. Wow. She now trusts me and is pretty confident that I won’t hurt her. While she was coming out, I shouted “Ally come, Ally come”. I gave her a reward. “Good girl Ally”.
“Now tap gently on her snout and send her back to water” Ralf said. “Ally water, Ally water” I said while sending her back in the water. “Now give her a reward again”. This was too amusing for me. I loved doing it. I did this everyday at 15:30. I continued this for a week. Everything was going very smooth. Every day I would notice a mugger come to the edge of the water and watch everything carefully. On day 8, I called out “Ally come” and Ally came out. Well, quite unexpectedly, the mugger also came out and sat right next to Ally as if imitating her exactly. I was speechless! “He could be your next student. Name him something” shouted Ralf. I called him Pintoo! After sending Ally back in water, I turned to Pintoo and said “Pintoo water” and he went back straight in water. That was AMAZING. They learn by watching others! I had never imagined crocs could be so smart. “Great job Soham. You just got your second student. ” Awesome! Now I had two crocs coming out of water and going back on my ‘commands’.

I now started to look for more interested individuals. Soon enough I had “Mik” – a Saltwater Crocodile, “Thai” & “Komodo” – Siamese Crocodiles, “Abu” – Nile Crocodile, and of course “Ally” and “Pintoo” coming out and going back in the water. All of these animals were now perfectly conditioned.

Training group with Ally in the water


To be continued...


Unknown said...

Nice man... I've seen you call out to Ally and her gang so many times... but i never knew how it all began!! :D

3B's said...

"Good Girl, Soham!"
indeed! looking forward to part two.

Ralf said...

Yeah, I did enjoy reading it, too.
It was big fun and a great experience for the crocs and us starting the training sessions and I cannot wait to see how all works now.

Unknown said...

Indeed its good discovery to see how crocs can be a goos student. congrats to soham