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Animal training and enrichment

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.