What does it take to train dangerous animals at Edinburgh Zoo?

Edinburgh Zookeepers Sue Gaffing and Karen Stiven with the Greater One-Horned Indian Rhinos. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh Zookeepers Sue Gaffing and Karen Stiven with the Greater One-Horned Indian Rhinos. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It is a two-man job that takes skill, patience and nerves of steel. Face-to-face with a two-tonne beast, two keepers are about to attempt what you might consider something of a reckless escapade – giving a rhino a check-up armed with nothing more than his favourite food and a pair of calm voices.

During the session, the huge animal is “encouraged” to lie down so its sensitive feet can be checked for any painful sores. It is a remarkable sight.

“They do love the company,” says Karen Stiven, senior hoofstock keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, matter of factly.

“But you do have to watch because they are very large animals and they can move very fast.

“It’s a two-person job and you have to really trust the person who comes in with you.”

Indian rhinos Bertus and Samir are just two of the animals which need to be trained to be, well, less wild.

In September, one of the attraction’s most popular exhibits, Sofus the sea lion, hit the headlines after completing “crate training” to ensure his journey to a Polish zoo was more comfortable.

“Up until that point, Sofus had always come across as very nervous,” says carnivore keeper Andrew Laing. “In the end, he was an absolute star.”

While it might be expected that sea lions, often seen as the clowns of the animal world, are easily trainable, it may be more surprising that heavyweight jaguars and razor-toothed wolverines are also willing to take part.

Training the animals is a process which takes time.

“The animals seem to enjoy the training but if they decided they do not want to do it, or that they have had enough, that’s it,” said Andrew. “But it is very seldom that ­happens.”

Gone are the days when zoo creatures were trained for cheap tricks.

Everything the animals are taught is for their own wellbeing, allowing veterinary checks to be less invasive and reduce the risks involved.

For most species, training starts from the same crucial point.

Karen, who has built up a relationship with Bertus and Samir, says: “Bertus, who came from Rotterdam and Samir, from Stuttgart, have been with us for about four years.

“We use positive reinforcement to teach them how to do things.

“They learn how to touch a particular target, for which they are rewarded with food. Every time they do this correctly, we have a clicker. That becomes a noise that they recognise, so they know they have got it right.

“By teaching them to stand still, we are able to carry out an all-over body check. We have a look at their skin, we look in the eyes and ears.

“It saves the vet from having to sedate them, which at £500 is very expensive and because the rhinos are large animals, it can put pressure on their heart and lungs.”

The check-ups are important, as rhinos’ feet need good monitoring in captivity, with some known to get cracks in their nails.

Despite their power, Karen said she is not afraid at getting in the ­enclosure. The weighty animals reportedly kill several people each year in India and Nepal each year, having left over-burdened protected areas to forage for food in nearby villages.

Karen said: “Not a lot of zoos do this training from inside the enclosure, but you have to build up a relationship with them.

“I do think being inside with them helps build a bond between them and their keepers, although you always have to remember they are wild ­animals. But Bertus and Samir are fantastic animals – their characters are ­brilliant.”

At the carnivores section, training is carried out from a safe distance – outside the bars.

Animals including Amur leopards, jaguars, sun bears and wolverines are Andrew’s responsibility.

“With the carnivore section it is all protected contact,” he says.

“They are extremely dangerous ­animals. Target training is the first thing we get them to do.

“Once we have cemented that, we can start on other behaviours. It’s really important that we can get blood samples from the animals – you start by touching the animals on the back.

“After a long period of time, the animal will eventually get used to it and hopefully they will get used to have samples taken.”

The zoo is home to two wolverines, male Xale and female Kirka. Each has their own enclosure as they do not like to share space and are only allowed to meet during the breeding season.

Introductions are done very 
carefully as males and females can seriously injure each other. But despite their feisty nature, wolverines have been proved particularly quick to pick up new things, as have the zoo’s sun bears, six-year-old brothers Somnang and Rotana.

“Both the wolverines and sun bears and good at opening their mouths by responding to hand signals and it allows us to have a look at their teeth,” said Andrew.

“But it’s really important that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, because the wolverines will be quick to spot if the signal is different.

“The wolverines will soon be leaving for the Highland Wildlife Park so at the moment we are giving them crate training, so they will get in to the transport crate on their own.It means that they won’t have to be sedated when they leave.

“The sun bears are particularly quick learners. Further along the line, we want to be able to get the sun bears to stand on scales and be weighed.”

And while felines of any kind are notoriously free-spirited, the big cats can be taught new behaviours in a relatively short space of time.

Andrew adds: “If you’re training them twice a day, each day a week you could get them to touch the target in a week. By the second week it will be completely cemented.

“The cats are quite quick on the uptake and I think that might surprise some people.”

But as is to be expected, individual animals will react differently to the training sessions.

Amur leopard Skodje and his female companion Zane are staying at the zoo’s big cat den until a specially designed enclosure is built for them at the Highland Wildlife Park.

“Though he isn’t aggressive, Skodje is quite a hissy cat,” explains Andrew.

“We just work around that and make sure we are not we are not blowing the whistle when he is hissing.”

Andrew believes that the emphasis on working with the animals has come into its own in recent years.

“Positive reinforcement has become a much more prominent thing amongst zoos, although quite probably there will still be some zoos where they don’t use this training.

“At Edinburgh Zoo, our reason for doing it is always the welfare of the animals. It’s good animal ­husbandry.

“The perception in some cases is that we are training the animals to do tricks – we would never do that. But it is possible that the sun bear training may get more visible to the public and that’s something we will be looking at.”

Elsewhere in the zoo, some of the bolder species do appear before an audience as they are encouraged to exhibit their own natural behaviours at the Hilltop Animal Antics sessions.

Animal presenter Amy Cook explains: “We put on shows at the top of Corstorphine Hill. We have a full range of 
different animals – birds including owls, turkey vultures, hornbills.

“Mammals-wise we have the armadillos and kunekune pigs.

“The birds get to fly around in their own space, the turkey vultures will spread their wings for the visitors and we will train the owls so that they will land on a visitor’s fist.”

Amongst the biggest entertainers are kunekune pigs, siblings Gilbert and Sullivan and Audrey, who show off their skills, good nature and love of attention.

Again, the pigs are taught using a target – a coloured ball at the end which they touch with their nose.

“A lot of people think the pigs are not very clever, but it is just like training dogs,” says Amy. “We give them a reward when they sit down at the shows.”

The Hilltop sessions are important in that they allow the animals to be mentally stimulated, Amy explains.

“The main purpose of the performances is to educate visitors to the zoo and teach them more about the animals, but we don’t have them doing handstands,” she says. “The activities are very stimulating for the animals. If an animal wants to join in it will, we don’t force them to do anything.”


As well as training, keepers at the zoo need to look after the wellbeing of animals by ensuring they retain their natural abilities and behaviours.

The job of the enrichment group is to educate visitors on animal behaviour, source the materials animals need for their wellbeing and to ensure they are stimulated mentally and physically.

Head of the enrichment group, Donald Gow, said: “We aim to give them the opportunity to behave as they would in their own environment. We encourage the chimps to solve puzzles, we give the monkeys things to climb on, we provide material for the pigs to root around in.

“Visitors to the zoo are able to observe the animals acting as they would in the wild, using their natural abilities to solve problems.

“That is really important for then wellbeing of different species.

“On the rare occasions an animal is reintroduced to the wild, reinforcement is important.

“It can help promote natural behaviours needed to ensure the animal will be prepared for life outside the zoo.”