Red River Zoo Practices Positive Reinforcement When Training its Otters

The majority of the zoo's training helps with veterinarian procedures

FARGO– The Red River Zoo takes pride in educating its visitors on the wide variety of animals available to see, including its North American River Otters.

“They are not a threatened or endangered animal but they give us many opportunities to talk to people about the role that otters may play in an ecosystem,” Red River Zoo executive director Sally Jacobson said.

Emily Swenson, a Zookeeper at the Red River Zoo, has been working with the zoo’s otters, Annabelle and Butler, since April.

“Otters are just such a fun animal to work with,” Swenson said. “They’re really smart so we can really push the boundaries when training them. They can learn a lot and they can learn really quickly.”

The zoo uses positive reinforcement when training the otters.

The otters hear a clicker and receive a treat when they complete a behavior correctly.

“The most challenging part of training is that it’s all on the trainer,” Swenson said. “If they’re not getting something, it’s kind of okay, what am I doing that they aren’t exactly getting.”

The majority of the zoo’s training helps with veterinarian procedures.

Trainers work with the otters on voluntary touches and vaccinations.

A lot of eye contact is needed to train the otters successfully.

“It’s a lot of taking steps back and working and if they aren’t getting something, kind of reevaluating what you’re doing,” Swenson said.

Even with non–endangered animals like the otters, the zoo makes an effort to offer an education and conservation component.

For the otters, this means doing our part.

In order to help keep the homes of North American River Otters Clean, the zoo says to rinse off your boats to ensure no invasive species are transferred.

“It’s really important to us that as people come through, that they have lovely and memorable experiences, but then that they walk away maybe learning something or being inspired by something,” Jacobson said.

For now, the zoo does not plan on adding any more otters to its exhibit.

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