Learning from Mother Nature Lara Joseph explains how working with exotics and undomesticated animals helps her fine tune her training skills and demands that she continually raises her game by knowing and doing better
© Lara Joseph
© Lara Joseph
A pair of baboons learn to station and to focus on the next cue; the animals determine if eye contact is a positive reinforcer or an aversive
Molly the ring-tailed lemur has spent several months at author Lara Joseph’s (pictured) training center learning to socialize with people
quickly become overwhelming. I often say, "My competitor is Mother Nature." I never expect to win, but she continually causes me to set my bar higher in knowing and doing better.
teach a lot of people to understand behavior through applied behavior analysis and its application with exotic animals. Of course, I didn't know I would grow up to be a professional animal trainer focusing primarily on exotics, but my interactions and observations with them have shaped where I am today because of everything they have taught me. With exotics, there is very little room for error, which means we have to pay close attention to the subtleties in behavior across a variety of species, all the while focusing on the individual. I never imagined my life would involve waking up with owls flying through my house, a lemur on my lap in my training center as I write articles (like this one - see photo, above right), or a pig nibbling on my toe for attention, while surrounded by numerous species of birds, ranging from raptors to parrots. It's the hardest I've ever worked and I wouldn't change it for the world. I have let the animal world shape a good portion of what I do. My love is clearly working with exotics and undomesticated animals. Why? Because it is different. I find working with them fine tunes my training skills and my ongoing work with behavior cases. Unfortunately, in the exotic animal world, behavior issues are prevalent in the companion animal, zoo, rescue, and animal education communities. Working, training, keeping, and enriching the undomesticated can
I never imagined my life would involve waking up with owls flying through my house, a lemur on my lap in my training center as I write articles (like this one), or a pig nibbling on my toe for attention, while surrounded by numerous species of birds, ranging from raptors to parrots.
BARKS from the Guild/July 2019
Inadequate Enrichment Sadly, behavior issues are skyrocketing in the realm of exotic animal care. Most of what I see is due to ongoing, stressful conditions and, often, the signs of stress are not recognized in the companion animal community or facility staff, who are not always educated appropriately. A lot of the behaviors I see are due to frustration, lack of choice, and the result of animals not being able to control their own consequences. I find that many caregivers and keepers of exotics do not understand the behaviors they are seeing. Instead, anthropomorphism tends to play a significant role, but this can be very dangerous, both for the animal and the keeper. Inadequate enrichment is probably the most common cause of undesired and stress-related behaviors. Even if enrichment is in place, then problems can stem from it not being individualized, from the object or action failing to modify behavior, or not involving problem-solving skills (or if these are present, the level required is not high or demanding enough). I also find that enrichment gets redundant and stagnant. All of this can lead to frustration, self-mutilation, abnormal repetitive behaviors, and more. I have no doubt positive reinforcement training is an animal's preferred form of enrichment – even with animals that are not considered to be social. I know it, I live it. I have seen the consequences of this form of interaction in effect with numerous types of animals, from giraffes to raptors. I have too many videos to count documenting how behavior modification plans, training, and enrichment have improved serious be-