Hartpury professor publishes new book about art and science of training zoo animals


Hartpury University’s Professor Vicky Melfi has published a new book bringing together the art and science of animal training within zoos to help improve welfare and conservation.

Featuring contributions from experts in academia and working in zoos, Zoo Animal Learning and Training incorporates the latest information from the scientific community along with current best practice, demystifying the complexities of training zoo animals.

Professor in human-animal interaction at Hartpury University, Vicky Melfi has worked for almost 30 years within the zoo profession as well as holding a number of academic posts.

She has co-edited and authored the new book with two of her former students –Drs Nicole Dorey, Senior Lecturer at the University of Florida, and Samantha Ward, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science at Nottingham Trent University.

The book demonstrates how the application of learning theory – the psychological discipline of how animals and humans learn – can be integrated into zoo animal management, how it can benefit cognitive development, and support situations and activities undertaken by the zoo while they care for the animals.

Zoo Animal Learning and Training explores different training styles as well as considerations for practical training programmes, including how to set them up, manage people and animals within them and their consequences.

“I was actually cautiously sceptical about the application of training within the industry 20 years ago, mostly because I was apprehensive about the different training styles adopted, but also what the consequences of training zoo animals might be for their behaviour and welfare, outside of training sessions - so I carried out research to find out what these implications might be,” said Professor Melfi.

“While it’s ubiquitous within the profession now and people’s knowledge of training is phenomenal, before this book there wasn’t a textbook that existed that provided learning principles and practical training suggestions, in an easily digestible form covering all aspects of animal learning and training in zoos.

“One of the really cool things about the book is that it includes contributions from international academics who know all about learning theory and likewise successful practitioners who have trained everything from geckos to giant pandas, elephants to dolphins, and primates to reptiles.

“One of the most important aspects of the book is that it cuts across all the myths and traditions surrounding training – what we choose we want the animal to learn – more generally and importantly in zoos.

“In fact, the same principles required to train lions, elephants and dolphins to maximise their welfare and conservation, could also be applied to domestic animals such as dogs and cats.  Or in fact your children or co-workers.

“The book demonstrates that, essentially, we all learn by following the same rules, whether we have two legs or four legs.

“The really simple principle is that if you reward something it will more likely happen again and if you don’t reward it, it is less likely to happen in the future.”

Professor Melfi, whose other books include Zoo Animals: Their behaviour, management and welfare, explained how Zoo Animal Learning and Training would benefit people working within the zoo profession and the animals under their care.

After covering learning theory in the first chapter, the book goes on to explain how zoo professionals can set up situations that will improve both their and the animals’ welfare.

“In a zoo context, there are things that can help someone working in the profession to do their job more easily and more safely so that preventative health care can happen,” said Professor Melfi.

“For instance, instead of having to catch an animal to give it regular medication, the book explains how they could be trained to accept being vaccinated, which is safer for the animal and the keeper.

“But how would training differ if you were training a snake or a macaw?

“Boxes within the book discuss what we know about the learning abilities and potential of different animal groups and also provide an insight into what they have been trained to do in zoos.

“And if the animal is colour blind and relies on auditory cues rather than visual cues to process the information that they need, to learn?

“Again, there are boxes within the book which consider the cues and signals different animals might use in their environment to learn.

Zoo Animal Learning and Training also deals with meaty topics such as how we can use training to prepare animals to be released into the wild, to help conserve the species, and how can we make sure that if we train animals, that we do it in way that doesn’t compromise their welfare.

“Anyone working with animals, such as our students who study a range of animal diploma and undergraduate and postgraduate degree qualifications, or those studying for other qualifications but are interested in knowing more about learning theory and animal training, will find this book beneficial.”

The BSc (Hons) Human Interaction, BSc (Hons) Human Interaction with Pyschology and BSc (Hons) Human Interaction (Animal Assisted Therapy) degrees at Hartpury – the first of their kind in the UK – allow students to understand the science underpinning the bond between humans and animals.

Central to the qualifications is the examination of the role that animals have in enriching human lives – as pets or in zoos, farms and conservation contexts.

Animal students at Hartpury have access to a wide range of facilities, including laboratories with industry standard equipment, an animal management centre and an animal collection featuring 70 different species, and a new dog agility arena.

The expertise and experience of lecturers at Hartpury spans all areas of animal and agricultural sciences, and all staff are actively involved in research and knowledge exchange, either as researchers or practitioners.

Research is fully integrated within teaching, with staff research active in the areas in which they teach and many dissertations embedded in larger scale research projects.

All research activity either directly or indirectly informs not only current industry practice but also the curriculum.

Picture: Prof Vicky Melfi (centre) and staff at the home of the prairie dogs at Hartpury, among 70 different species of animal at Hartpury

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