April 2015 Newsletter

April 2015

What's New

Our Spring semester is underway, which includes our new offerings in advanced canine and feline training. Registration is now open for our Summer semester, beginning June 25, 2015. Register soon to ensure your space in the classes of your choice.

Animal Imposters

What goldfish doesn’t wish it was a shark? If you were a goldfish you’d probably wear this costume too. Rather than being hunted by predators of the sea, perhaps this goldfish can intimidate predators by becoming one of them. Though this isn’t one of the most convincing disguises, many animals think along the same lines as our friend the goldfish. Disguising itself as a predator, plant or even a piece of trash, prey species can escape being eaten and live to see another day.

Animals impersonate other animals in nature all the time, with a variety of strategies and motives. Some animals disguise themselves as powerful predators that are not to be messed with. Take a gander at this tephritid fly and one of its predators, a jumping spider. Note how the patterns on the wings appear to be legs! This fly can even use its wings to mimic the “keep away” sign to real spiders, allowing them to drive away their predators. Can you tell which animal is the mimic?


Other animals disguise themselves as plants so that their own predators will overlook them. Cleverer still are the animals that disguise themselves as organisms that are poisonous to potential predators. For example, Cinereous Mourner chicks are born with brilliant orange feathers with black polka dots. Though it seems this would advertise them to predators, it actually makes them resemble a caterpillar that is known to be poisonous. This disguise ensures that predators will avoid them at all costs. Pretty sneaky.


The Fork-Tailed Drongo doesn’t need any fancy makeup or costumes; it relies on pure talent. This bird steals food from the meerkat by mimicking a meerkat call. This lures the animal away, providing a perfect opportunity to scarf down their food. If the meerkat happens to come back before the bird is finished, the drongo isn’t worried. It has another trick up its sleeve: it will impersonate a predator of the meerkat, making them run away again!

You thought that was impressive? Check out the Lyre Bird, which can mimic a at least twenty different species, as well as almost any sound it hears in the forest. These birds can recreate the sound of a camera, a car, an alarm and even a chainsaw. Most of the sounds this bird produces are mimics of other sounds; however they do have their own unique calls. They have a “territorial” call, which is melodious, and an “invitation-display” call that sounds mechanical to humans. Because of the “invitation-display” call, they are often mistaken for clicking or scissors grinding.


Watch this Lyre Bird in the wild producing a variety of sounds (yes, those are his real feathers)

Have you ever been fascinated by the TV character or superhero that can shape-shift into almost anything? This unique ability of transformation is found at the bottom of the ocean. The Indonesian Mimic Octopus can disguise itself as an impressive array of different species. Octopi are incredibly intelligent and can change the texture and color of their skin to avoid predators. The mimic octopus has been known to impersonate the sole fish, the lionfish and the sea snake, among others.


View the mimic octopus in action

Many insects use camouflage and impersonation as well. For example, the orchid mantis can make itself look exactly like an orchid, making it almost impossible to spot. This creature is a praying mantis whose four legs all resemble petals of an orchid. It is usually white, but can be pink or purple. They actually begin life looking like a tiny ant with a black body and red legs. It is only after they have molted several times that they become white and later attain their final color, either white or pinkish purple. By disguising themselves as plants, orchid mantises escape predators but also trick their own prey, such as butterflies, into landing nearby.

If you thought humans were the only animals that could master the art of acting, you were wrong. Many species of animals make nature their theater as they impersonate other animals through costumes, actions and voices. Though there is no animal kingdom Broadway, the most talented of these actors achieve more than fame and fortune, namely survival and perhaps access to an easy meal.


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A Neck Up on Husbandry - Training Giraffes

You probably knew that the giraffe is the world’s tallest mammal. However, what you might not know is that, much like dogs, giraffes can be trained in captivity. In fact, many dog-training techniques are replicated effectively on these long-necked creatures. There aren’t giraffe shows or giraffe training schools where you can drop one off to be house trained, but there are many benefits of training for zookeepers and veterinarians – in addition to the giraffe itself.

Like all animals, giraffes benefit from training because it serves as an important form of enrichment. It can provide mental challenges and replicate puzzles that a giraffe would have to face in the wild. This is achieved in the Toronto Zoo via target training. In target training, giraffes touch their nose to a target, such as an orange square that the zookeeper holds on a long pole. This provides positive interaction, teaches the giraffes that humans are a source of good things, and encourages them to change postures as they would in the wild.

The Niabi Zoo takes on a slightly different approach to training and enrichment for giraffes. They teach giraffes to follow a target through a chute. This helps with veterinary check-ups because it leads the giraffes to weigh-in stations voluntarily rather than having to persuade the animal to go there on the day of the check up.

Training animals to cooperate in the health process is one of the most important reasons that giraffes are trained in zoos. The Toronto Zoo introduces giraffes to a wooden stall that they must use for medical check ups well in advance of the procedure. They train the giraffes to go into the stall voluntarily and get them comfortable being confined in the space. Giraffes become accustomed to being touched and examined. This makes the process of a genuine check up much easier and faster for the medical examiner while being painless and relatively stress free for the animal. This can be used when veterinarians need a blood sample or need to check an animal for injuries, for example.

Watch keepers train giraffes at the Niabi Zoo

While giraffe training may require an upfront investment, it saves an immense amount of time for the animal, trainer, staff and veterinarians during the long run. In fact, the process of training is probably fun and enjoyable for these animals, given that their participation in training is voluntary.

Giraffes are often trained via clicker training just like dogs. The clicker provides a clear, concise, consistent marker that is easy for animals to hear; some facilities use whistles in the same way. When the giraffe executes a command correctly, it will hear the click and immediately be reinforced with a treat. The sound of a click marks desired behaviors and lets the giraffe know they have performed the correct behavior; the click is used as a conditioned reinforcer.

Who would have guessed that giraffes could be trained just like dogs and other animals in captivity – domestic and wild! Furthermore, while we don’t think of them as the affectionate companions, they demonstrate connections with humans. The Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam, Netherlands experienced the emotional sensitivity of a giraffe when a terminally ill zoo worker asked to visit the zoo one last time. During his stay, a curious giraffe approached him, nuzzled his face and gave him a kiss. While this isn’t a typical event,  it demonstrates that giraffes aren’t just trainable, they inhabit the same complex, emotional world that dogs do – and as we do.

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Training Search and Rescue Dogs

As the harsh winds of Hurricane Katrina hit and water began to rise, one man feared for his life, it seemed he could not escape drowning. As he began to slip under the waves, a black Labrador retriever dove in after him, grabbed him in her mouth, and pulled him to higher ground. After being pulled to safety, the man and the dog were both rescued. He credited the dog with saving his life, and later that year she was honored at the Genesis Awards, even receiving a standing ovation.

This dog displayed more bravery than many people might have. In the midst of a hurricane she risked her life to dive after a stranger and pull him out of the water. The dog was terrified perhaps and could have focused on getting herself to safety. Instead, she reached out to someone in desperate need. Though this story is amazing, it is not uncommon. Dogs rescue people often, especially members of their family. In fact, some dogs have made it their vocation - specially trained as Search and Rescue dogs. Their job involves helping with wilderness tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and finding missing people.

Dogs’ unique sense of smell can be an enormous asset in this work. This ability complements the senses of their human handler; they are able to stay on a trail and find a person using clues undetected by humans. However, dogs don’t simply sniff out people when we ask them to. Search and Rescue dogs go through a period of intense training before getting out and saving lives.

How does a Search and Rescue dogs reach the point of active duty? They are best trained starting as a puppy. They generally train for 12-18 months and retire after 5-10 years. Training will include obedience, socialization, agility and scent training. All of these abilities contribute to a successful Search and Rescue dog.

Puppies will generally begin training several times a day for an hour or less. They will have different sessions for different areas of training. One way to begin training a puppy is to play a game that encourages the natural, instinctive behaviors of the dog. For example, some trainers reward or reinforce dogs once they demonstrate a simple skill like fetch. This gradually becomes expanded to games with more specific skills.

Some trainers use games like hide and seek, where trainer will hide and the puppy will find them. Initially, the puppy uses both sight and smell to find the trainer, but the trainer will gradually hide in spots that are harder and harder to locate, forcing the puppy to use scent exclusively. Eventually, the trainer will hide further away and create a longer period of time between hiding and the dog searching for him or her. These build the skills a search and rescue dog needs to locate a missing person by scent.

Watch some of the training that SAR dogs undergo

As the dog progresses through the training regimen, the frequency of training decreases but duration increases. For example, instead of training six times a week, they might train four times a week but for an hour rather than half an hour. When dogs get closer to being ready to train for the specific tasks they will use, dogs progress to one weekly training session that lasts four to eight hours.

It’s not just the dogs that need training! Handlers must go through a training process so that they can escort the dog on rescues. Trainers must have wilderness survival skills and outstanding dog handling skills. They have to know the dog extremely well and learn her individual behaviors. For example, each dog may show unique signs of being distracted, being on task, having found a missing person, or simply having picked up a scent.

When out working, dogs will be trained to let their handler know when they have found a missing person; this new signal is the “recall/refind” action. This is useful when the dog has found a person who is out of reach of the trainer, or who the trainer would not otherwise be able to find on his or her own. The dog will search on its own, find the person, come back to the trainer, and then return to the missing person. This can be repeated several times as the trainer gets closer so that in effect, the dog is leading the trainer to the missing person.

Any dog might reach out to a person in need, providing essential, perhaps life saving assistance. But Search and Rescue dogs make it their profession. They go through training from the time they are very young to make the grade as a Search and Rescue dog. They have saved many lives and to those who’ve received their services they are truly a person’s best friend.


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Becoming a Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator

Doodly the Deer was just a baby when she showed up at a wildlife rehabilitation center after the death of her mother on a roadside. She was small and frail; the center warmed her up, fed her and watched as she began to grow and flourish.

However, once Doodly was able to venture outdoors on her own, another tragedy struck. A dog attacked her, causing her to suffer severe wounds to her head and legs. Luckily, Doodly was found by staff of the center not long after the attack. She was rushed to the vet and after five hours, she was stitched up and began the long road of recovery. During that time, she was kept indoors to prevent her wounds from being contaminated. Though the staff of the wildlife rehabilitation center tried to keep her from imprinting on them, she became attached. After being released back into the wild, Doodly couldn’t stop coming back to check on her human family. Eventually, she was moved to a deer program at Washington State University where she remains today, enjoying a protected life in good care.

This rescue story is one of many that result from the hard work of wildlife rehabilitators around the globe. Wildlife rehabilitators experience the extremes of animal work, from the euphoria of releasing healed animals back in the wild, to tragically ending suffering through humane euthanasia. If you are interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator, read on as we begin the first of our three part series on finding internships, developing opportunities, and ultimately becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator!

One of the premier wildlife rehabilitation organizations in the United States is the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). NWRA recommends that aspiring wildlife rehabilitators get started by reading, beginning with Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, and the NWRA Quick Reference. Go beyond reading, however, and consider joining NWRA or a related organization. Your membership will provide you with access to educational opportunities, such as discount publications, seminars and workshops, as well as low cost liability insurance and reduced attendance fees for their annual conference. National conferences can provide great information but they also give you a chance to network and share resources with other rehabilitators. It’s essential that your accrue experience in your field while getting started. Volunteer or internship positions can be invaluable. (See next month’s newsletter for more information on wildlife rehabilitation internships.)

Before you begin your career as a wildlife rehabilitator, there are many aspects of the job to consider. You must be prepared to spend less time with your family and friends, as this job requires a very substantial time commitment outside the usual 9 to 5 routine. There is a real risk of physical injury, furthermore ongoing exposure to animal suffering and death can be very emotionally taxing. You and anyone working with you must have adequate insurance. Animal care can be quite costly as well. You must pay for cages, medicine and transportation. Most wildlife rehabilitators work with a nonprofit organization, which makes it easier to get donations and funding. But this in turn means that fundraising is an inherent part of the job; few rehabilitators look forward to this type of work.

College degrees are not required for wildlife rehabilitators, but a degree will provide extra knowledge and expertise, as well as giving you an edge in this competitive field. Those attending college should complete a major in biology or ecology; veterinary technician programs are also a good alternative. There are more than 60 colleges offering accredited veterinary technology or animal health technology programs in North America. Some of these schools are affiliated with or located near wildlife rehabilitation facilities where students can volunteer or extern. This can provide rehabilitators with a leg up on the process of preparing for this career.

Wildlife rehabilitators are required to be licensed from the state and federal government; other permits may also be necessary. However, you may not need a license if you are working under a license rehabilitator or licensed facility. Federal requirements are the same for everyone, regardless of where they live. Visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Permit Section regional office for information on federal permits. Laws prohibiting possession without a permit protect almost all birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and other endangered and threatened species. To get a permit, you are required to have experience, training and the proper facilities. Many states require apprenticeship, a written exam, an inspection of the facility, and proof that a qualified veterinarian is available before issuing a permit.

Requirements can vary tremendously between states or provinces. some require only a written request and an application fee while others are much more extensive. Let’s take a look at a typical example; the state of New York offers two types of wildlife rehabilitation licenses: General Wildlife Rehabilitator, and Rabies Vector Species Wildlife Rehabilitator.

The general license allows one to take care of most animals, other than those protected under special laws such as some bird species and marine mammals. It allows capturing, housing, feeding, and providing emergency treatment to injured animals for release back into the wild. However, it does not allow keeping animals long-term, exhibiting animals to the public or rehabilitating domestic animals. To get the general license, an applicant must:

  • Complete a written exam
  • Submit an application
  • Provide two written references
  • Complete an interview

Their license must be renewed every 5th year, and a report must be submitted every year. Upgrading to more advanced licenses, such as the rabies vector license, requires more exams, extensive training and several years of experience with the general license.

License requirements for Wildlife Rehabilitation can vary dramatically from state to state. Though they have much in common, the specific instructions are different. We’ll provide a state by state listing of the appropriate contacts in an upcoming article.

Wildlife rehabilitation can be a taxing job, however, it can be a dream come true for the right person. Wildlife rehabilitators can contribute to the ongoing conservation and preservation of endangered species. But an animal doesn’t have to be endangered to provide the incredible reward that comes with success. Doodly the Deer could not have survived and gone on to live a rich life without the work of wildlife rehabilitators who saved her, cared for her, and ultimately found a place to release from their care. If you think being a wildlife rehabilitator is in your future, keep reading and don’t miss our future newsletters on license requirements and internship opportunities!


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