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Animal training and enrichment

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.