Feeding Flamingos! And More Amazing Animal Encounters!

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

My dear reader, I can tell by your visiting this post that you have a most excellent taste in blogs. The compliment that you just received is a part of a tactic used in all sorts of situations called positive reinforcement. In this case, my telling you that your taste in blogs is excellent serves as a reward for you reading this page. Another example is seen in every work environment where you are likely to get a pay raise or promotion because of the quality of your work. During InternQuest’s amazing expedition through Urban Jungle, animal trainer Kelly Elkins described to us how positive reinforcement is currently being used to successfully train animals to exhibit natural behaviors and strengthen the relationship between trainer and animal. Throughout the day we observed flamingos and cheetah cubs as well as a zebra and cuscus.

Meet Ms. Elkins (left)! She is a good friend of Mrs. Barnard (right), and we were very privileged to be able to get to know such an amazing person during our time with her. Throughout her presentation, Ms. Elkins described various ways positive reinforcement is utilized to help train animals. Ms. Elkin’s passion for her job is evident by the years of work put in to achieve her position at the San Diego Zoo as an Animal Trainer. She also expressed several times how she would never give up her job for any other occupation.


This pink feathered friend was the main attraction of our first stop. The flamingo being held is Floyd. Floyd had to go through several surgeries after he was born because he had defects in his legs. Fortunately, Floyd was strong and today we were able to see him walking about normally with the rest of his flock.


Leave the shrimp cocktails at home, these flamingos prefer soaked dog kibble. This was a fun treat for both us and the flamingos. Positive reinforcement is used here as the flamingos are rewarded for approaching the fence when people are holding out cups. The flamingos received a supplementary treat to their diet while we were able to see the flamingos close up. An added bonus was most of us can now say we have been showered by flamingos since their beaks splashed around in the cup trying to pick up the food and inevitably splashed us.


After fishing the food out of the cup, this flamingo is attempting to consume it. This task can pose a bit of a challenge because the flamingos, and all birds for that matter, lack teeth so they cannot break the food into smaller pieces. This bird in particular put on quite a show as it tried to move the food further up it’s beak so it could fit the piece of food inside.


Ms. Elkins explained how this zebra is a perfect example of successful training using positive reinforcement. Zari the zebra has been trained to allow the keeper to lift her tail for the insertion of a thermometer. Once Zari exhibits the correct behavior, she is rewarded with food. We were able to clearly see how incredibly calm Zari remained throughout the training session.


Fun Fact! In the wild zebra’s ears are cleaned out by birds seeking a snack. However, these birds are not available in the Zoo, therefore, Zari had to be conditioned so that the keepers could clean out the tar-like substance that gathers in her ears. Zari has learned through repetition that standing still while the two legged creature digs around in her ear with cloth will result in a treat. After cleaning each ear, Zari would shake her head around as if to say “That tickled!”


Another important medical behavior the zebra is trained is allowing dental care to be performed. This behavior is currently being trained by the process of desensitization. Ms. Elkins told us about how Zari is only comfortable with this device in her mouth without water. The goal is for the Zari to allow the keepers to use the piece of equipment to clean out her mouth after dental work. However, Zari is not yet ok with the feeling of cold water and will walk away if anyone attempts to actually use the device.


The final example of positive reinforcement succeeding with Zari is her reaction to an injection. It is vital that Zari allows medical staff to administer medication through injection. We saw Zari perform this behavior several times and each time she stood perfectly still, not even her tail twitched the entire time. This amazing response was definitely rewarded with treats.


The highlight of my day was seeing the cheetah cubs. We were not allowed inside for obvious reasons, but watching at the edge of the enclosure as the trainer interacted with the big cats was an incredible experience. Even though the cheetahs had previously shown off in front of guests that day, they were still willing to perform the behavior the trainer requested knowing they would be given food.


This cheetah also came out to see us, and was excited at the prospect of receiving some meat. She eagerly did a sort of jog with the trainer as Ms. Elkins told us about this cheetah’s backstory. We were able to see the trainer jog with the cheetah as a sort of exercise.


Our final animal encounter of the day was with this adorable cuscus named Kali. We were able to see several of her physical talents at work as she held onto the food with one hand while perching comfortably on the trainer’s hand. Occasionally we could see Kali use her prehensile tail wrap around the trainer’s walkie talkie in order to stabilize herself.


Now you may be wondering what impressive skill the trainers have taught Kali, the cuscus, with the help of positive reinforcement. Kali has mastered the art of bravery. Ms. Elkins commented that being a prey animal, cuscuses are usually extremely nervous out in the open where a bird could swoop down and grab them, but allowing the cuscus to constantly munch on some fruit or vegetable has conditioned Kali to be at ease in front of an audience while outside.


As the trainer showed the pouch of the cuscus, we were informed that a baby cuscus will only develop inside of the mother for 13 days! After that time period it will crawl into the pouch to finish growing. It was amazing to see how comfortable Kali was with her trainer by allowing her to show us were the pouch is located and how deep it is.

As you have most likely figured out for yourself, none of these experiences would have been possible without the animals establishing a mutual trust with their trainers. This trust is what makes these animals so willing to work with the trainers; knowing that the trainers only reward them for the actions they successfully exhibit while ignoring the rest. This same trust also allows trainers to walk confidently beside a cheetah without fear of the cheetah bolting away. A similar case is when you may try to train your pet to sit or lay down. Until a sort of trust exists between you and your pet no progress will be made. While I did just make a connection between these animals and pets, it is very important to understand that these wild animals are in no situation to be viewed as domestic.

In order for species like the cheetah to make a comeback in the wild it is essential that they are no longer taken for the illegal pet trade. One way that you can aid the cheetah, and many other species, is spreading the word of how the continuation of black market pet trade can and will result in these species disappearing completely. Just by telling others what you learned today, you are joining the San Diego Zoo in their quest to end extinction.

Noah, Photo Journalist Team
Week One, Fall Session 2018


Add a comment

Due to the increased volume on our many social media channels, we are unable to respond to all comments or questions. Comments are now posted automatically but may be removed if deemed inappropriate according to the San Diego Zoo Global Blog Comment Policy.


  1. Courtney
  2. Kelly Harrel