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Special Report: How El Paso zookeepers train orangutans to accept medical treatment

The El Paso Zoo is one of a few accredited zoos with a full-time training coordinator who focuses on reducing the animals’ fright and stress during medical exams.

Zookeepers start their day with a shoe wash to prevent germs from entering or leaving the animal enclosures.

They are preparing for some important training with female orangutan – Ibu – and her 3-year-old daughter Khalessi.

“We work with the animals to desensitize them to different things and work them to do the behavior we want,” said zookeeper Rachel Alvarez.

Zookeepers train the orangutans while they are behind cages. While it may not seem necessary, the cages are critical.

“These animals have the strength and potential to harm us. Even if they weren’t being intentionally aggressive they are just so strong. They wouldn’t realize they are crushing your finger or pulling on you too hard,” Alvarez said.

The technique zookeepers use is called positive reinforcement training. The animals are slowly trained to accept medical treatment.

Ibu and Khalessi meet with Alvarez and her crew twice a day, five days a week.

“We’re checking to see if they are using their full body, they’re not weak, like, they can’t really hold on,” Alvarez said.

Zookeepers check the animal’s range of motion and their arms, hands and feet.

Alvarez also uses a whistle. She tells ABC-7 it’s an important tool in communicating with Ibu.

“The whistle is a bridge. It lets the animal know right away, immediately, that what they did is what we wanted,” Alvarez said.

Ibu voluntarily follows their commands.

Zookeepers also target specific areas, such as the eyes, ears, nose and throat.

“For medical purposes, so the vet can come and look at them, look at their eyes to see if they are clear or any discharge. They look in their ears to see if they don’t have any wax or maybe an ear infection. They get looked down their throat to see a sign if they have any red throat or anything like that,” Alvarez said.

The zookeepers use special fake tools to check the orangutans’ hearts and stomachs.

When Ibu got pregnant, doctors needed to perform sonograms monthly but they couldn’t just walk in and use invasive equipment.

“We want them to get used to it. We want to be able to use it, but should they be able to grab it or do anything it’s not damaging the real expensive equipment. Not till we’ve perfected the training will we actually get the vet staff to bring their equipment,” Alvarez said.

During the training, little Khalessi remained close by her mother. It could be a challenge with her getting in the way, but she’s learning too.

“She picks up on it and sees what mom does and she mimics mom,” Alvarez said.

At the end of the training, if all goes well, the orangutans get their treats.

Ibu enjoys cantaloupe and a sweet drink. The animals are then released back into their exhibit.

“Ultimately, it means that I’m providing the best care and home for these animals here and what we can gain in new information. It can then be used for other zoos and it can be used for the species out in the wild,” Alvarez said.

The positive reinforcement training doesn’t stop with the orangutans. Zookeepers use these techniques on more than 60 different animals, from iguanas to elephants.

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