Let’s Make this “Shift” Easy


Romeo, one of the larger males at the sanctuary in Borneo

When we started working with the 250 lb. male orangutan they told us his name was Mike Tyson. He was known for aggressive behavior. He was impossible to shift and any attempts to shut the door behind him lead to door slamming and spitting at keepers. By the end of three days of training I changed his name to Magic Mike.

These 21 sun bears shift two times daily at the sanctuary

Mike’s experiences were similar to many animals in managed care. For various reasons animals may be required to be moved to other areas temporarily. This may be to allow for cleaning of habitats, to safely add new enrichment, to ensure animals receive their designated diets, etc. In Mike’s case it was especially challenging. He was being rotated out of the group area where the females were so that another male had the chance to have some social time with the girls. This was the unfortunate reality of the overabundance of animals being displaced from the wild in Borneo and now living in sanctuaries. Housing many males is particularly challenging since males generally give threatening displays to other males and for the most part choose to be far away from one another in the wild. Asking Mike to leave his ladies so a competing male can have access made shifting even less appealing for him, as well as for the other males.

One the rare occasions keepers were able to get Mike to move into one of the shift areas, the door was often quickly shut before Mike had a chance to return to the group area. This resulted in aggressive responses, displays and a loss of trust in the staff caring for the orangutans. It also caused his compliance with shifting to decrease.

When I started working with him I was warned repeatedly “He bites! Be careful.”  But not having a prior history with him and by focusing on non-coercive techniques, he showed me he could be a very gentle giant (Although I must admit it was quite impressive to see him get triggered by a neighboring male, stand up and pound a nearby wall to display to the other male, and then calmly sit back down in front of me ready for another repetition of targeting and gently take a raisin from my fingertips with his lips.)

Mike learning to shift

Many trainers will tell you the most rewarding subjects are those who make dramatic transformations. Mike started out barely willing to move his lips to touch a target. By the end of a single, but long session this giant animal was standing and walking repeatedly from the group area to the holding area and back, over and over again. What a testament Mike was to the transformative powers of a positive reinforcement based training strategy applied well.

The next two sessions were spent working on teaching him to be comfortable with allowing the door to be shut. There were another 38 orangutans in this part of the sanctuary. We worked with several others with the same problem with excellent success during our short time on site. Our primary goal was to teach staff members how to implement the strategies, so they could continue training after our visit. On our last day, one of the keepers worked with the next most difficult male and in one session had him shifting in and out with ease.

Studying our training strategies Photo Credit: Colleen Reed

The feedback I hear from many keepers is that shifting is often one of the more challenging problems they face. We knew this was one of the behaviors we would be working on in Borneo. Before we started training we went over a course I prepared on essential strategies that ultimately contributed to our success. Does this sound like a topic of relevance to you? Would you like to attend for free?  Just sign up here.

You will learn more practical application details that contributed to Mike’s quick success as well as see many video examples from my consulting work around the world of important details that make a huge difference when training this behavior. I hope you will join me!

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