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‘Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’ Explores the Importance of Animal Training

Scott Terrell

by , DVM, DACVP, Director of Animal & Science Operations, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts

As a dad, I relish memories from my early days of fatherhood and young family life; watching my children take their first steps, speak their first words and even finish potty training. Of course, those things didn’t just happen overnight – they took months of practice, patience and positive reinforcement.

Much like parenting in some ways, animal training requires patience and understanding. This week’s episode of “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom” on Disney+ highlights many behind-the-scenes moments that showcase how our expert Animal Care teams encourage the animals at Walt Disney World Resort to participate in their own care. It includes examples of training for both aquatic and land animals, celebrating new milestones and all the grit and glory that goes with it.

Aquarist Aaron sets up a target feeding session for Harry, a green sea turtle

At The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT, aquarist Aaron has spent the past four years specializing in aquatic animals, including sea turtles. He has a wealth of expertise he has developed here and through work with other Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) institutions and conservation field studies. Aaron has invested a lot of time and effort into a green sea turtle named Harry, who came to us as a rescue from the wild after suffering an injury. Because of the extent of his injury, Harry’s not a candidate for re-release. Aaron has been by Harry’s side since his arrival at The Seas and is determined to help him thrive in the main aquarium under our care.

Feeding time for Harry is a central focus for Aaron, who is teaching the sea turtle how to swim to a target for his very own meals. This technique allows the aquarists to keep a close eye on Harry and ensure he’s eating enough each day. Here’s a sneak peek at what that looks like.

During their training sessions, Aaron provides Harry with positive reinforcers to gain his trust, in the form of back-scratches and his favorite foods, which you ­can see Harry loves…but you can also see it is a real treat for Aaron too. He has been working hard to help Harry make progress toward living his best life in his new aquarium home. With every milestone comes a huge sense of pride and accomplishment.

This week’s episode also highlights some small wins for one of our very large residents with equally big feelings of apprehension; the task – to get African elephant Nadirah to cross a bridge in her habitat on the savanna on Kilimanjaro Safaris. In this case, her animal care team Erin and Elizabeth had to redefine what success looks like, based on Nadirah’s personality and her unique needs.

Erin has spent the past thirteen years exclusively devoted to working with elephants in AZA institutions. For the past six years, she and Elizabeth have been caring for elephants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park ,so they really have great insights on the dynamics of the herd and used their know-how and expertise to try a variety of different techniques to build up Nadirah’s confidence. By observing the elephants’ behaviors, they knew African elephant Vasha provides encouragement to Nadirah, so the team had them spend time together. They also knew Nadirah likes bath time with lots of attention and extra snacks, and this positive reinforcement gave the keeper team a chance to strengthen their bond with her and build more trust.

While Nadirah hasn’t crossed that bridge just yet, she continues to get a little closer, and we’re encouraged by her small steps toward big success. It’s a great reminder that at the end of the day, what Nadirah does is her choice, and just like with all of the animals at Walt Disney World Resort, it’s our job to recognize her needs, be supportive and work with her to ensure she gets the very best care.

Be sure to check out this week’s complimentary downloadable activity guide to learn more about the animals in our care, and follow us on Instagram (@DrMarkAtDisney) and Facebook (@DisneyASE) for more behind-the-scenes fun.

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