Injection training is also enormously important for many of the animals under our care. This type of training utilizes positive reinforcement. Animals can always walk away, but if they choose to participate, they receive their favorite food as a reward. Injection training starts with animals learning to present a body part to keepers. For infant gorilla Moke, it was his shoulder. We progressed to touching his shoulder with a finger, then with a capped syringe and finally a blunted needle. To receive a reward, all Moke needed to do was hold still. Repeated training sessions like these get animals used to holding still for injections.
When animals can comfortably, calmly and voluntarily receive injectable medications, vaccines or anesthesia, it creates a less stressful experience not only for the animal, but also for keepers and veterinarians. Are you, or anyone you know, afraid of needles? A nurse may take the time to talk you through the process to put you at ease, and may even give you a lollipop when it is all over. The same principle applies to training animals for injections. But keepers and veterinarians rely on the trust they build with an animal, rather than an animal’s ability to understand an explanation of what is happening.
Many medications that are prescribed to animals at the Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are intended to be taken by mouth. This can look vastly different depending on the species. Let’s take reptiles, for example. Most reptiles do not chew their food, and some species do not eat every day. So, when Murphy the Komodo dragon needs to take a pill, the entire thing can be shoved inside a piece of chicken, his favorite food, which he readily gulps down.
Liquid medicines can also be injected into frozen-thawed mice that are fed to reptiles, ravens and other carnivores. What animal could pass up a tasty mouse treat, even when it contains medicine? It may sound gross, but rest assured that it is a highly reliable way to medicate some of the animals at the Zoo. This same technique can also be used for small mammals and birds, but with different food items. Mealworms, wax worms and insects can be injected with medications and are then gobbled up quickly by these smaller animals.