I just returned from an inspiring trip to Colombia, South America, and am excited to tell you about it. As part of our conservation program at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we are working to protect a critically endangered monkey, the cotton-top tamarin found only in Colombia. Proyecto Tití also works with local communities to reduce the number of cotton-top tamarins that are in the illegal pet trade. Their program teaches kids to keep “wildlife in the wild” and to say “No” to pet monkeys and “Yes” to building a special bond with their dogs or cats.
Of course, teaching the kids and their families how to keep their pets healthy is an important part of this, and representatives from the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine came to Colombia as part of a pilot program that included providing vaccinations, spaying and neutering, and other medical care for the dogs and cats of Los Limites, a village that borders our cotton-top tamarin field site. Keeping the pets healthy also reduces the possibility of disease transmission to both the people and the wildlife in the area.
We also wanted to help kids and their families develop a new appreciation for their pets by helping kids understand how their dogs are smart and motivated to please. Disney’s animal care team members Marty MacPhee, Maggio Gonio, and Mauricio Saldarriaga helped create a program, which we piloted with a group of kids from Los Limites, on how to train your dog and learn about dog behavior. Mauricio traveled with me to Colombia to teach the program. Included were great activities that helped the kids learn how to decode dog behavior by watching the position of a dog’s ears and tail, and, of course, keeping an eye out for facial expressions and learning to speak “dog.” They really loved creating their own dog mask with moveable ears and acting out different dog behaviors. They really enjoyed playing the training game, trying to train each other to perform a specific behavior without using words. It really is hard to get someone to understand what you want when you can’t use words. But once the kids learned that the sound of a clicker means that you are correct, and that there is a tasty treat on the way, they found a new way to train their own dogs! Take a look at the short video clip of one of the children, Angie, training her dog, Congo. Be sure to look closely for the not-so-hidden Mickey hand on the end of the target stick!
At the end of the program, we had a graduation ceremony, and the children received diplomas for completing their first dog training class. They were so proud of everything they had accomplished. Seeing their smiling faces, and their heartfelt promise to keep training and caring for their dogs, makes me realize just how important programs like these are for kids who live in Los Limites. Helping people care for their dogs, so that they can appreciate just how much fun it is to have that special relationship with a pet, is not only good for people, but ultimately helps protect the wildlife of Colombia.