Growing Family, Building Trust

Nearly 15 years ago, Como Friends provided the first funding for a progressive animal training program at Como Zoo that uses positive reinforcement to encourage animals to participate in their own health care. That long-term investment has shown major returns in the last year, as Como’s zookeepers have managed the care and feeding of several expectant “zoo moms.”

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Como Zoo’s talented primate keepers use operant conditioning training to keep spider monkeys, orangutans, and gorillas healthy and curious.

“The training program helps to build trust with animals, and that was especially important with Markisa,” says primate keeper Megan Elder, who managed the birth plan for Como Zoo’s 28-year-old Sumatran orangutan, mother of 8-year-old Jaya. When she first arrived at Como Zoo, Markisa was stand-offish and mistrustful of keepers, but thanks to the consistent and positive reinforcement she receives in behind-the-scenes training sessions, the now veteran mother cooperated with all of the check-ups her planned c-section birth required.

“Markisa was a rock star,” Elder says. “She was calm throughout her pregnancy, which helped us give her the best care we could.”

Did You Know?

  • Sparky the Sea Lion was the first animal at Como Zoo to take part in operant conditioning training, a program that now includes hundreds of animals at Como.
  • In 2015, Como Zoo became just the second zoo in the U.S. to successfully train polar bears to participate in voluntary blood draws, allowing keepers to monitor animal health with a minimum of stress.
  • Como Zoo primate keeper Megan Elder is also “International Orangutan Studbook Keeper,” charged with keeping track of the genetic health of more than 3,000 captive orangutans around the world.

The female orangutan participated in voluntary ultrasounds that helped veterinary partners at the University of Minnesota track her pregnancy from week to week, allowing them to settle on January 7, 2015 as the best day to deliver both a thriving baby and a healthy mother. Though the sight of a veterinarian was once cause for stress, Markisa actually presented her belly to U of M vets so they could see how her incision was healing after surgery. “I don’t know where we’d be without the training program,” says Elder. “It’s been so important to building the trust.”

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Baby Kemala just moments after her scheduled c-section birth at the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine.

During Como Zoo’s year-long “baby boom,”, your contributions to Como Friends also helped to build a new public feeding station for the giraffes, a fresh new look for the African Hoofstock building, and a splashy design plan to improve the Seal and Sea Lion habitat. Whether it was paying for the extra bananas Como Zoo’s two pregnant gorillas put away, or providing the equipment necessary to save Wyoming toads from extinction, nearly every animal at Como Zoo benefits from your contributions to Como Friends.

“Even the primate keepers got a nice new coffee maker as a baby shower gift, which really helped during those round-the-clock feedings,” says Elder. “We feel the support from Como Friends every day.”

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