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Blog

Animal training and enrichment

Four Ways to Enrich the Lives of your Mice

Ilana Bram

You’ve got the basics covered. Your mice have a clean tank and bedding, fresh water daily, a high quality diet, a safe wheel, and a hide to sleep in. Their social needs are met, because you have at least three mice, and they get along nicely. 

Here are four ways you can make their lives more interesting. (Read why you might want to do this.)

1. Food

This is the easiest way to make life interesting for mice. Here are some of the biggest hits with my mice:

Sprouts. I bought a plain two-tiered seed sprouter at the grocery store — any sprouting kit will do. You can sprout any seeds that are safe for mice to eat. You don’t need to wait for a full shoot and root to form; a peeking little tip of a root is enough. 

Wheat is the easiest grain to sprout at home

Wheat is the easiest grain to sprout at home

Sprouts are great because they contain micro-nutrients that dry pellets don’t have, and they contain a lot of water, which is good for digestion. And mice go NUTS for sprouts. I’ve successfully sprouted: wheat berries, spelt, kamut, millet, oats, barley, and brown rice. 

Fresh veggies and fruit

Mice need some fresh foods in their diet. I've had most enthusiastic responses to cilantro, baby kale, wheatgrass, young parsley, raspberries, and blueberries. (Organic, because mice are very cancer-prone.) Rotate your veggies to keep them thrilled!

Buttercup and one-eyed Daisy eating baby kale, sprouted brown rice, and raspberries

Buttercup and one-eyed Daisy eating baby kale, sprouted brown rice, and raspberries

Treats (in moderation!)

Hide treats in different parts of their cage. Better yet, wrap the treats in paper first (phone book paper, brown paper, plain white printer paper), so they have to nibble through the paper to get to the treat.  

Best healthy treats: Dry mealworms, plain unsweetened Cheerios, raw sunflower seeds in the shell (if your seed mix contains sunflower seeds, pick them out and offer them as treats), whole oats, and oatmeal flakes.

Mice also love eggs! I make my mice pancakes: I scramble an egg, mix with oatmeal (and veggies/flax seeds if in the mood), and fry it with nothing else on a pan. Wait until fully cooled, and serve.  You can make a pancake out of anything listed above. Don’t add sugar— they will love it as it is!  And of course, remove any uneaten foods that can spoil later that day. 

Treat packets that I made for ~200  "feeder mice" living in small lab bins. Food packets are one of the easiest ways to give such mice pleasure. Wrap treats in paper, and serve!

Treat packets that I made for ~200  "feeder mice" living in small lab bins. Food packets are one of the easiest ways to give such mice pleasure. Wrap treats in paper, and serve!

2. Soil

This one is controversial, because soil can contain critters that can bother mice, which is why soil is not usually used by mouse keepers in the US. Do your research and make your own decision with this one.  I first got the idea to use soil when looking at German mouse habitats, and decided to try it when I read about the effects of good soil bacteria on the mental health of mice (solving mazes more quickly, resistance to PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and persisting in swimming in water bins instead of giving up in experiments). I want happy mice! Plus, mice adore digging in soil, a natural behavior that comes pre-programmed in their little brains. I’ve been using soil for several years, and haven’t had a problem yet. 

Use organic, indoor potting soil only, and replace it every week.  Simply put soil in a box, mix in seeds, oatmeal, and treats into the soil, and watch your mice dig away! A digging box, like this one by #MumblebeesMouseHouse, will keep the soil more or less contained, and the mice will love being hidden "underground": 

Soil has the added benefit of naturally eliminating odors.

3. Foraging Walls

Whether you have a small tank or a huge vivarium, a foraging wall will multiply the amount of usable space.  A foraging wall is simply a piece of cardboard that perfectly fits your tank wall, with steps, passageways, and hides for your mouse to explore.  Every morning and evening, I scatter treats in new locations on the foraging walls. The mice do their rounds, following their noses, and never know what they will find and where they will find it. This is a great way to add variety and excitement to their lives. I love the walls in Mumblebee’s shop, and incorporate them into my mouse house.

Foraging walls and other structures should be made of clean cardboard (with no labels, stickers, or paint), plain popsicle sticks, unbleached coffee filters, plain printer paper, phone book paper, brown paper, Elmer’s glue, and hot glue. I also incorporate small glass baby food and yogurt jars, being careful to glue them on very securely. All foraging items get thrown out after 1-4 weeks, depending on how dirty they get and how many mice you have. 

4. Complex structures

Using the same materials as foraging walls, you can create complex, varied structures for agility and exploration. If your mice live in a small tank, and you simply don’t have the ability to give them more space (other than foraging walls), you can make a mouse playground for them: put down a felt blanket or brown paper on a table, and lay out your cardboard and popsicle creations on the table along with a wheel, food, and water. Scatter treats, and take your mice out for daily exercise early in the morning or late in the evening, when they are most active. When you’re done, put your mice back, and place the play items in a box. Always supervise!

Here are examples of complex structures for mice. Search the hashtag #mousetopia for ideas, and tag your own creations! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Reasons Why I Give My Mice Enrichment

Ilana Bram

Mice can survive in tiny, barren, cages. I’ve seen as many as thirty-two mice (including juveniles) living in standard lab bins about the size of a small shoe box, with only food, water, and a small wooden block to climb on.  Many people house their mice in small tanks which allow for little more than a water tower, a food bowl, a wheel, and a hide.  And the mice survive.

But we can do so much more than merely allowing them to survive.

I build my girls complex, ever-changing environments. Some of these were made by my friend Kayla, a.k.a. #MumblebeesMouseHouse, a talented artist that got addicted to "Mouse House" building with me (click here to see her amazing Etsy shop where you can buy foraging walls and other enrichment items). She made most of these for me:

 

Here’s why. 

1.  Physical health. Good food, fresh water, and a clean tank are not enough for keeping a mouse fit and healthy. Mice are extremely agile, athletic animals. They are meant to use their bodies, balance, scale, and climb. Providing mice with a complex environment allows them to use their muscles, keeping them trim and fit. 

2.  Mental health. Mice are born to behave. Like all animals, mice come pre-programmed with a set of behaviors that they enjoy performing, and with the ability to learn and adapt to their environments. They need to have their behavioral needs met in order to be happy. Mice are curious, active animals. They love to explore novel items, sniff, dig, burrow, tunnel, run, climb, and carve out new holes and passageways. Mice have excellent spacial memories, and they spend time every day walking the perimeter of their territories, memorizing escape routes, and searching for food. 

3.  Aggression. Mice are territorial, and they will fight over good nesting spots. For this reason, people often overcrowd mice into small tanks. When there’s no territory, there’s nothing to fight over. It’s all too common to see 4-5 mice in a 10-gallon tank, and hear that the reason is that it keeps the mice peaceful. Peaceful, or depressed? I’ve seen the same with cichlids, a territorial fish that guards a nesting cave. Cram 30 fish in a small tank, and they stop fighting. They survive. But it’s a sad, dull life. A proper large vivarium with enough hiding spots, escape routes, and many more nesting sites than there are mice, will prevent aggression. The bullied mouse can always escape. Mice will bicker occasionally— it’s part of their feisty charm— but true damage will usually only occur when there is scarcity of resources. (This applies to mice of the same colony, and not to introductions of new mice, in which case *temporary* small-space housing is OK.)

4.  Entertainment. While you can tame your mice and teach them to climb on you, and even allow to be touched, most mice don’t appreciate petting. A mouse raised in isolation may be desperate enough for human cuddles, but for the most part, they enjoy each other’s company, and don’t need your petting. This quality makes them especially bad pets for small children, who desperately want to hug and squish their animals. The solution? Building enrichment items and watching the mice explore. I spend hours watching “Mouse TV,” seeing the different personalities and relationships, watching my mice “spark” with joy (a special hop they do when excited) when they discover something new, seeing them dig, climb, and parkour across their enclosure. 

Let’s go beyond survival, and give our mice rich, happy lives.

Coming next: four ways to enrich the lives of your mice

Scale-Training Norma and Nathan the Ring-Tailed Lemurs

Ilana Bram

When I first met Norma and Nathan, they had only been together for about a month.  They were an interesting couple, and I enjoyed watching them. 

Nathan was a new arrival at the zoo, just recently freed from "solitary confinement" (what we call quarantine, a vital procedure that helps prevent the spread of pathogens and diseases between zoos, but Nathan knew nothing of that). He was ten years old, and had spent his whole life up to that point in an all-male bachelor exhibit. As far as I know, the last female he had ever seen was his mother. Confused, disoriented, surrounded by new smells, sounds, and sights, and on his own for the first time in his life, I can only imagine how he must have felt when he got his first whiff of Norma. Not only a fellow lemur, but a FEMALE. The scent alone must have knocked the wind out of him.

Norma was not particularly attractive. In fact, she was a much older lady— more than twice Nathan’s age-- and had a sagging paunch and a less-than-lustrous tail. But to Nathan, I think she was a goddess. 

Lemur societies are female-dominated. Norma was obviously the outgoing, confident one, while Nathan preferred to stand aside and watch her with admiration and deference as she boldly faced people and objects that frightened him. They were sweet to each other, cuddling, grooming, and sleeping side by side. Norma was kind, but she had first choice of everything. If Nathan tried to sneak a piece of apple that she wanted, she thought nothing of slapping his wrist and emitting a soft reproachful call, which sent him bolting up to the safety of his high perch, chattering nervously.

I target-trained them both. Norma was easy. She had had a little training before - luring onto scale and into crate - and she might have had some clicker training in her previous home, the zoo where she spent the first 22 years of her life. Nathan was another story. Norma often pushed him aside when I came because she loved our training games and wanted the treats for herself.  Besides, he was too afraid of me to come near. But he watched everything intently. One day, I had Norma targeting a block of wood. She touched it, heard her click, and came to me for a treat. Her back turned to him as she ate, Nathan saw his big chance. He hopped over to the block, looked me in the eye, and touched the block. I clicked and tossed the treat by his feet. He snatched the dried cranberry with his skinny black fingers and ran off to eat it, looking pleased with himself. 

It took Nathan a long time to feel comfortable enough to take a treat from my hand, but in the end he did. I rewarded Norma for staying in place and not chasing him off, and for every click and treat that Nathan earned, Norma usually got one too. 

The lemurs were easy animals and had no behavior problems, so I spent my time elsewhere. One day, however, the keeper in charge of weighing the lemurs every month told me she was having trouble. For the past four months, the lemurs had refused to go into their crate to be weighed, and it was becoming a problem. The keeper suspected that one of the interns accidentally frightened the lemurs when they were last weighed. Whatever the cause, the lemurs wanted nothing to do with the crate, no matter how many treasures were hidden inside. 

I brought in the crate to begin training. Norma and Nathan ran up to the highest perch, clicking loudly in alarm. I took out my target stick and gave them a few easy touches, but when I tried to lead them down the high perch they refused. They wouldn’t go near the thing. “It’s OK. You can stay up there,” I thought. We were making progress by pairing the Scary Trap Box with their favorite treats for time being. It would take a while, but I knew what works: giving them full choice and control, breaking down the goal behavior into itty bitty parts, and rewarding every step of the way with high-value treats. 

The lemurs would change how they felt about the Scary Trap Box in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, I decided to teach them to climb on a portable scale. That was much easier. I began by having them stand on the scale cover. Norma thought this was hardly a challenge:

Next, I used a target stick to lead them onto the scale:

The time we spent scale-training brought us closer. With every click and treat, the lemurs learned to trust me.  They no longer ran away when I came in with the crate. 

I rewarded the lemurs for being in the same room as the crate, looking at the crate, approaching the crate half a step, approaching one step, two, three, looking into the crate from a distance, poking their heads in, leaning in, reaching in, stepping in half way, and finally, at long last, for going all the way into the crate. 

One of the most wonderful things an animal trainer can do is take something the animal hates and fears, and turn it into something fun. The Scary Trap Box had become the Box of Thrills and Wonders, and a favorite activity.  

Clicker Training Betty the Bobcat

Ilana Bram

Photo of Betty by Daniel Cohen

Photo of Betty by Daniel Cohen

Cats hate closed doors. Anyone with a cat knows this. They hate being trapped out of a room almost as much as they hate being trapped in a room. A cat will alert you, loudly and persistently, if you make the mistake of closing a door Which Should Remain Open. I was not surprised to discover that what is true for Felis catus, the house cat, is also true for Lynx rufus, the bobcat. 

Betty the bobcat HATED closed doors.  She especially hated being trapped in the wrong side of the door, the keeper area, because that’s where bad things sometimes happen. The previous summer, Betty was trapped three times in a few short weeks: for her vaccinations, for treating a limp, and the worst --for her spay surgery. After the surgery, Betty had to stay at the infirmary for a few weeks so the staff could monitor her wound. She HATED the infirmary. In all three cases she was sedated first, but it wasn’t enough to prevent her making the connection: get locked up in the shoot between the exhibit and the keeper area, get grabbed, pointy thing pokes, sometimes wake up queasy and covered in strange smells, sometimes wake up frightened and confused at evil little cage with scary smells, trapped for weeks. 

From a friendly one-year-old, too tame to be released back to the wild after being orphaned and hand-raised by humans at another facility, Betty became suspicious and stand-offish. She could no longer be shifted on and off exhibit. The keepers could not poop-scoop her exhibit while she was there because bobcats have sharp bits that can cause humans a lot of damage. They were able to surprise her once or twice and lock her in, but it was becoming impossible. 

Betty kept to herself, spending long hours in her box hidden from view. It was a less pressing but annoying problem, because zoos like animals to be on display.  No amount of calling and cajoling would bring Betty out on view. This went on for months. 

At first, Betty wanted nothing to do with me.  She stayed up in her box, ignoring me or growling at me, but I was already in love and I kept coming back. I always had rare and delicious treats. I called, waited, tossed a treat, and left.  In the end, I think she gave me a chance out of boredom. She came down and took treats from me through the fence. 

I began by target training her: "If you put your nose on the tip of the target stick, it will make me click and give you a treat.” Betty took to the game enthusiastically. Here is a video of Betty targeting, with the added criteria of “calm touches”:

I no longer had to persuade her to participate.  She stalked my scent and the sound of my clincking keys. I was never able to surprise her. She was always already there, waiting and ready.  

Betty’s playfulness was contagious. Our targeting game evolved from “Touch the Target” to "Chase the Target." I ran from one side of the exhibit to the other, making the target “fly” up and down like I would with a house cat. Betty loved to “catch" the target and get her clicks and treats. She was pretty impressive:

I enjoyed lining up groups of small children by the front of her exhibit, shushing them dramatically, and POW! Bobcat in your face! The huge paws and sharp claws, the speed, the power, the spotted fluffy belly at eye level-- made a big impression.  

To further increase her visibility to the public , I scattered heavenly scents at the front of her exhibit: cinnamon, cumin, and hay from the alpaca exhibit. 

Now that Betty loved to play Chase the Target, I raised criteria: chase the target on and off exhibit. Betty was hesitant at first, but her love of the game won. I left her doors open, always, and as soon as she was in the keeper area I made the target escape back out to the exhibit. We continued like this until Betty, caught up in the fun, chased me into her keeper area and stayed there, receiving a rapid-fire string of clicks and treats. Yay!  After this breakthrough, I put a wooden platform in the keeper area, taught betty to sit on it on cue, and transferred the cue to Kyleen, Betty’s favorite keeper. Kyleen practiced “sit on platform” (or, as Betty called it, “The Platform of Plenty”) every morning before the zoo opened. The timing couldn’t have been better, because winter was almost over and all the poopsicles in the exhibit were about to melt. We really needed to get someone in there and clean up. 

Betty escaped if more than one person came to her keeper area because all the bad stuff happened in the past when two or more people were present. We had to be patient and break it down, adding a small element at a time: sit for Kyleen; sit for Kyleen while Megan and I stand by doing nothing; sit for Kyleen while Megan jingles her keys to unlock a door… and so on. When we pushed for too much too soon, Betty dashed out and the game was over. We had to work gradually until one glorious day we reached our goal: 

Kyleen distracts Betty in the keeper area while Megan unlocks a creaky door, pulls a noisy lever, lowers the door to lock Betty in, goes back out, closes the creaky door, joins me with shovels and buckets, unlocks the exhibit door, Megan and I enter the exhibit, we scoop poop in a mad frenzy, stashing high-value treats in our wake into nooks and crannies, exit, lock the exhibit door, and make lots more noises opening the shift doors again, freeing Betty.  

But Betty was having so much fun sitting on her Platform of Plenty with Kyleen that she decided to stay there. She did not bolt back on exhibit when the shift door opened. Betty had overcome her fear--  at least under the current conditions.  Choice, control, and lots of rewards for small slivers of progress can make the impossible possible. 

 

Porcupine Problem: Stationing

Ilana Bram

Animals sometimes do things we don’t like. One such animal was Du Soleil (Due So-Lay), a North American porcupine. 

Du Soleil had a habit of climbing her keepers’ legs like a tree --  a pointy and frightening experience for the keepers. In order to distract her, the keepers were instructed to give Du Soleil a treat whenever this happened. Du Soleil would climb back down and sit on her hind legs while slowly savoring her treat, freeing the poor keeper to go clean the enclosure for a few minutes.  Every time she finished one treat, she chased the keeper for another. 

Over time, Du Soleil’s leg-climbing became more and more persistent and energetic.  One time, perhaps because a treat wasn’t coming, Du Soleil bit the keeper’s leg, breaking skin. 

Breaking down the behavior, it is clear that the keepers inadvertently strengthened the leg-climbing behavior:

I am bored and hungry. 

A. Keeper appears in my enclosure
B. I climb her leg
C. MY FAVORITE TREAT! YUM!


Without changing anything, the climbing is likely to increase over time.  And it did. 

We think the climbing/biting is bad, but the porcupine is doing this behavior because there is a payoff. It is fun for a porcupine to DO something in order to get food. Instead of calling it “bad,” I will call it “undesirable to the human.” So how do you change this undesirable behavior? 

Easy. Find out what you want the animal to do instead. Which behavior can the animal perform in order to receive the same payoff or better? Then, control the environment in order to make this new behavior more likely than the “bad” one by preventing the animal from doing the bad thing, while making the good behavior easy and rewarding. 

I decided that the easiest solution would be to have Du Soleil come to a station at the front of the enclosure, as far as possible from the door. The spiky scamp cannot climb the keeper’s feet AND stand nicely at station at the same time. By making "standing at station" highly rewarding, Du Soleil is set up for success. 

I began by working with Du Solail through the enclosure fence, where she was unable to climb my legs.  I taught her to touch the ball at the end of a target stick with her nose. This is called “targeting,” a useful basic skill. I offered her the target ball, marked the moment she touched it with a click of my clicker, and gave her a piece of Rodent Chow pellet. She caught on very quickly, and soon was able to follow the target ball (or, as she called it, “The Orb of Riches”) across the enclosure. Once she targeted reliably, I put a wooden T-station in her enclosure and lead her over with the target stick.  Here she is following the target to her station:

I slowly faded the target stick and rewarded her for standing at station.  By the end of the summer, I no longer used the target stick at all. All I had to do was show up, and Du Soleil sashayed over to her station to get her goodies.

The nuisance climbing was eliminated without causing the animal any distress. Instead, she got a valuable new Platform of Plenty from which to forage. Du Soleil was guaranteed her preferred reinforcer without having to waste time on chasing and climbing, which yielded fewer treats anyway.  Zoo visitors were delighted to see her up close at the front of the enclosure in all her whiskery, snorting glory. And the keepers no longer had to run away from a charging porcupine.