A Zookeeper’s Guide to Healthy Habits

It’s National Zookeeper Week, a whole week honoring and celebrating the hard, passionate work from the most amazing group of people on the planet. Zookeepers are, in my opinion, real superheroes. They dedicate their lives to improve animal welfare, educate the public, and promote conservation.

One of the fascinating aspects of being a zookeeper is building a relationship with an animal. Imagine, building a relationship with an animal—perhaps one who lives in the water, or is ten times bigger than you are, or an animal that is known to attack, and even kill humans. Zookeepers build trusting and respectful relationships with all kinds of animals through training and operant conditioning. Training, the art of teaching animals behaviors, is in essence the ultimate gift of communicating between species.

As we celebrate zookeepers this week, I wanted to share how each one of us can practice the principles of zookeeping and training to build a positive and healthy relationship with another kind of animal—ourselves.

How Trainers Do the Thing

I’ve seen zookeepers train their animals to do some incredible behaviors, behaviors that empower and embolden healthy activity that improves animal welfare overall. Amazingly, I’ve seen trainers teach cuttlefish to decide if they want a small treat now, or WAIT to receive a more desirable treat in a few minutes (the marshmallow test performed with kindergarteners, but for invertebrates). Other animals have learned how to give THEMSELVES medicinal injections (leaning into the needle rather than holding still while it is injected), which takes voluntary participation to a whole other level.

Towan in a training session with his keeper Andy

When I see these amazing behaviors, I often think about how trainers are able to accomplish these feats. It’s through a process call operant conditioning, using positive reinforcement. Ironically, it’s almost polar opposite of how we function in today’s culture and society.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! I’ve been using zookeeper tactics of positive reinforcement and animal training principles for years to develop healthy habits that become lifestyle changes to improve my own quality of life. And you can use the same methods yourself.

Me and Watoto just wanna have fun!

Whether you have the goal to lose a few pounds, run a marathon, or just keep up with your kids (or grandkids), we can achieve these by implementing operant conditioning, just like zookeepers work with their animals.

Okay, operant conditioning? Is this some sort of hair therapy?

No, it’s behavior science, and it’s what revs me up and excites me. This is what I love to geek out about. Operant conditioning is a type of learning process where our behavior is learned from the consequences of our actions. I think I saw your eyes glaze over more, so let me sum up more concisely, particularly with how trainers work with animals: When the animal does a behavior correctly, they get something fun, like a treat or a favorite toy, which sends a signal to their brain to encourage the behavior again.

Training demo with elephants at Denver Zoo

Breaking Behavior Down Into Smaller Steps

But we can’t just EXPECT an animal to magically do the behavior. We have to teach it to them little by little, starting with the simplest step first. Say we want to teach the animal to step onto a scale. We may start with the animal just getting used to a scale in the same area as them, then ask the animal to touch it, with their nose, a foot, or some body part. Once that’s easy for the animal, we can ask them for a slightly harder step, getting their body on the scale, and then maneuvering them so we can see the number, perhaps asking them to sit, or hold very still. It can take time, but the end result is an animal comfortable and confident about stepping on a scale every time the trainer asks.

Zebra training at Smithsonian Zoo (photo credit: Smithsonian Zoo)

So, what does that have to do with our fitness goal? Well, it’s the same! We can’t expect our minds and bodies to instantly perform our goal (working out, eating healthy, running 26 miles). We need to start small, and work our way up to our goal, breaking the behavior into easy steps.

And, how you want to go about teaching yourself your healthy habit is completely up to you. There’s no WRONG way to train a behavior. In fact, there are as many ways to train a behavior as there are people to teach it. That means you get to choose the path that works best for you!

Make it Fun

The key to training animals and training ourselves is having fun! Make the habit as reinforcing as possible. But notice I didn’t say rewarding. There’s a slight difference between the two, even though many trainers, myself included, sometimes use the words interchangeably. Rewards typically signal an end to the behavior. We reward someone for finding our lost cat. Most people, once the cat is found, will stop looking for the cat. Reinforcement encourages behavior to occur again and again.

So, how can you use reinforcement? Well, that again, is totally up to you. When a zookeeper is first start building a relationship with an animal, they often spend time learning what the animal likes and doesn’t like. Some animals like to have their ears scratched, others like to have their tongues rubbed, while still others love a pile of ice cubes. It takes time, and for us, some self-awareness and self-reflection. What is the equivalent to your ice cube?

Meerkat enjoying their ice enrichment at Houston Zoo (photo credit: Houston Zoo)

You can use verbal praise, a proud victory stance, a gold star, or a check-off which helps you earn a larger reward. In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she demonstrates the research behind positive affirmations. In most cases, positive self-talk doesn’t just boost confidence, it also improves performance in the behavior.

This process is a game-changer for people working with animals, seeing how far their relationship can grow in a positive way. It’s a serious game-changer for the fitness world, too. Our culture is somewhat obsessed with using punishment, forcing us to do “what’s right”, berating us when we make a mistake, guilting us into doing things we don’t want to do. Where’s the fun in that? If you aren’t having fun, it’s difficult to want to do our healthy habits again and again. It’s not sustainable.

The good, good pigs!

But having fun in our fitness by making it empowering (with operant conditioning) and engaging (by using positive reinforcement), we are more than halfway there. We can make a positive impact on our lives, and inspire others to do the same, changing our world, one healthy habit at a time.

So, what new behavior will you train for yourself? Let’s make it a fun one, learning to eat clean, live green, and train positive. Like zookeepers, like zoo animals. Today, tomorrow, and forever! Let’s ZOO this!

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