Deer Diary: How to Train Your Dragon… I Mean Deer!
Deer Diary: How to tRAIN yOUR dRAGON... i MEAN dEer!
Last time, I introduced you to my favorite animal at the Zoo, our Calamian deer, Luke. I’m going to keep the Luke-train rolling and share a bit more about this great little deer! One of the reasons I have such a good relationship with Luke is trust. On some level, trust is needed with all the animals in our care.
Deer are prey animals. In the wild if they stop being alert and responding to threats, real or imagined, they are lunch. In human care, our animals do not have to worry about ending up in the belly of a predator, but they keep those wild instincts that urge them to flee or panic, if something strange or scary is going on.
One of the scarier things our animals undergo are vet visits and a lot of our animals, for their safety and ours, are anesthetized to safely be examined by our dedicated veterinarian team. We strive to do medical husbandry training with all the animals in our collection, which helps maintain the best health of the animals with minimal amount of stress. So, how does trust factor into this?
I can get voluntary weights on Luke, because I trained him to step onto a plywood board with a scale underneath. Weight is an important metric when assessing the health of an animal. The more we can get weights, the more likely we are to find an underlying health problem since weight loss is one of the first signs of a lot of illnesses. When I first introduced the scale training to Luke, he was not a fan.
I set up the plywood scale board in his back-holding yard and encouraged Luke to investigate it by placing some of his favorite food items on it. He would lean over, as hooves as far back as possible, trying to get the food without touching the board. Once he got more comfortable with this, he took his first step onto the board, and quickly stepped off. The sound, and the feeling of his hooves on the board was scary! Since I was standing right there with him, being calm, and not freaked out, he settled down quickly, and within a few weeks, he was walking onto the scale board like a champ.
The next step was elevating the scale board up a few inches to mimic the height the board would be at when I brought the actual scale out. This was also scary for him, but since I built up that trust with him, he quickly conquered his fears! My heart was pounding as I set everything up on the day that I needed to bring the actual scale out. In the picture of Luke on the scale you can see that there is a big yellow box, which is where the weight is displayed, and thick blue cords. I hoped he wouldn’t freak out when saw them. Animals can pick up when you are nervous, and it puts them on edge, especially if they are snack-size like Luke. Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. I had established with him that good things happen on that wooden board and that nothing scary happens when he stepped up. So, he calmly walked on, and I got his weight voluntarily for the first time. The prognosis? He was a bit chubby. That first step onto the scale was about two years ago, and nearly every month since, I have been able to repeat my initial success. Honestly, the hardest part about it now is getting him off the scale!
The other big training I do with Luke is a lot more hands on. Although he likes to receive neck rubs, he didn’t really appreciate other parts of his body being touched. He is now acclimated to where I can pick up and examine both of his front feet, rub/palpate all up and down his body, and put on fly repellent when the flies are bad. He still does not like his back feet being picked up, but training is always a work in progress.
The trust that I have built up with him over the years has allowed us to keep our fingers on the pulse of his health – literally. I do my part by respecting his body language and listening to his cues that he gives when he is not in the mood to train or is uncomfortable with a new situation. He rewards us by allowing my team and I to continue to push for new behaviors to help constantly improve his care.