The Ethics of Animal Training and Handling
By Barbara Heidenreich
First presented at The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators Conference 2008



Trends in animal training are shifting. The focus is no longer on only achieving a desired behavior goal, but on the process used to attain this goal. Unfortunately practices that rely on aversive strategies such as negative reinforcement, positive punishment, misuse of deprivation, and reducing choice still persist in the zoological community. This is likely because of a perceived efficiency, despite the adverse effect this can have on animal welfare. Trainers can align with the least intrusive training strategies by eliminating the use of chase, capture, and unwelcome restraint. They can also take note if there is lack of positive reinforcers for behaviors, if animals tend to move away from trainers, show aggressive behavior and/or if animals appear to merely tolerate procedures rather than eagerly participate. These “red flags” can indicate a need to re-evaluate training and handling strategies. This paper will demonstrate the benefits and importance of fully embracing a positive reinforcement approach to the highest level possible in animal training and handling.

Reducing Coercion:

Coercion is “easy.” Finding ways to coerce animals into compliance can many times produce immediate results, which can reinforce trainers for using those methods. However overtime the result may be a breakdown in behavior, aggressive and/or fear responses and more. Quickly the animal is deemed a problem and unsuitable for programs, when in truth in many cases the methods are what created the problem situation.

Control by positive reinforcement is non coercive: coercion enters the picture when our actions are controlled by negative reinforcement or punishment. (Sidman 1989) In addition actions that contribute to control via negative reinforcement or punishment need not be severely aversive to be coercive. Seemingly innocuous activities such as scooping a bird onto a hand, pushing a rabbit into a kennel and redirecting a wandering opossum on a table all incorporate force. The following examples help illustrate how inconsequential coercion may appear to be.

Coercive Non Coercive
Restraining an opossum for nail trims Pairing positive reinforcers with unrestrained nail trims
Picking up a rabbit to go back in its cage Teaching the rabbit to hop back into the cage on its own when cued
Corralling a red panda into a crate to weigh Teaching the panda to stand on a scale for weighing
Using a gloved hand to scoop up a parrot Training the parrot to step up onto the hand voluntarily
Grabbing a balled up hedgehog out of a box Target training a hedgehog to come out of the box
Pushing into a hawks chest, or pulling up its feet  to get it on a glove Leaving the glove still and letting the bird step or hop to the glove

While an animal may tolerate being picked up, placed in a kennel and handled in front of an audience, this is not enough to demonstrate a dedication to a positive reinforcement approach to training. No doubt many have seen presentations in which an animal is clearly uncomfortable as it is hoisted onto a table, or manipulated against its will in order to “educate” the public. Smaller animals such as birds, as well as domestic animals are often species subjected to this type of coercion. Many times these species either do not present, or are not large enough to present, undesired behavior that a human cannot over power. It is disconcerting that these animals would not receive the same respect a lion or dolphin in training might receive. In addition the educational message sent by the struggling or nervous animal is not one of respect and reverence for the species.

To ensure least intrusive methodology is employed in animal training practices, trainers can look for specific indicators. Ideally an animal trained with positive reinforcement will eagerly present cued behaviors. These behaviors can include things that are basic needs for participating in an education program, such as loading into a kennel, or stepping onto a hand. An animal that moves away from a trainer, shows aggressive behavior or merely tolerates handling may need to have its training plan re-evaluated.

While animals can learn to tolerate certain handling and restraint procedures, these can also be trained with positive reinforcement. Under these training strategies an animal can be observed to show body language that indicates comfort and the eagerness to participate as previously described. This requires knowledge of observable body language for the species that indicates comfort. For example, a parrot that might be determined to be comfortable wrapped in a towel may present fluffed feathers on the crown, underneath the beak and on top of the head. The eyes would lack pinning behavior and be almond in shape as opposed to wide open. The bird may groom or preen itself. Vocalizations normally present with distress would be absent.

By noting the slightest indicators of fear or aggressive behavior, trainers can learn to recognize when training strategies are treading into territory that would be considered coercion for the animal in question. This then signals trainers to refine their focus back to positive reinforcement approaches to training.

Avoiding Misuse of Deprivation:

Deprivation in layman’s terms is a word that carries connotations of extremes and misuse. However it is clear that in the science of behavior analysis, deprivation covers a wide range of conditions. According to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, deprivation is the absence or reduction of a reinforcer for a period of time. Deprivation is an establishing operation that increases the effectiveness of the reinforcer and the rate of behavior that produced that reinforcer in the past. Less clearly defined is: How long should reinforcers be deprived for them to have sufficient reinforcing value for desired behavior? How much deprivation is considered reasonable and how much is considered misuse? Even though trainers are likely evaluating these criteria in every training session, acceptable parameters have yet to be officially defined for the animal training industry.

Most trainers would agree levels of motivation for food reinforcers exist that are beyond what is necessary to acquire a sufficient response to train behaviors.  To better gauge acceptable levels of motivation, trainers may want to define a range of observable behaviors that can be matched with levels of motivation for reinforcers. For example, when a pine nut is offered to a macaw in a training scenario in which the bird is relaxed and comfortable and being asked to do nothing but accept food, the following observations could be used to rate motivation:

Observed Behaviors Level of motivation
Holds pine nut in foot Low
Bites tiny pieces off of pine nut slowly Low
Drops half of the nut Low
Wipes beak on perch (feaking observed) Low
Proceeds to preen after drops nut Low
Holds pine nut in foot and brings to mouth quickly Medium
Quickly breaks nut into 2-3 pieces and swallow pieces Medium
Directs attention back to trainer once nut is consumed Medium
Swallows nut immediately without breaking into pieces High
Quickly directs attention to trainer once nut is consumed High
Offers trained behaviors in rapid succession High
Presents behaviors equated with frustration or anxiety about food: may redirect aggressive behavior on nearby objects, birds, or people, stereotypic pacing, etc Excessive
Aggressive behavior presented towards other birds if competing for the same food resource Excessive

For most situations a medium level of interest in food reinforcers would suffice to create desired responses. Working with an animal with a low level of interest in the reinforcer can create training problems such as slow response to the cue. Excessive levels of motivation often can result in less learning as the animal is too focused on food. Both extremes are not ideal for animal training.

Identifying the behaviors associated with an acceptable response range will vary with species, individuals and the circumstances in which the training is to occur. But by having clearly defined parameters trainers can be assured they do not misuse deprivation. In addition having well defined parameters may protect the industry from non animal training professionals that question the use of food as a reinforcer for training desired behavior.

Trainers can also use a number of strategies to create motivation for food without the misuse of deprivation. For example animals can be trained immediately preceding normal meal times, meal times can be staggered throughout the day to increase training opportunities, base diets can be provided at all times while preferred foods are saved for reinforcers in training, and more.( Heidenreich 2006) If any reduction in food provided is considered at all, the period is short lived. Once the learning has occurred, diets are quickly returned to levels appropriate for the animal. This has also been applied to human learners. (Sidman 1989) There are many examples in which the listed strategies for managing the delivery of food have proven to be successful in creating motivation for food reinforcers without compromising the health and welfare of the animal.

The list of non food reinforcers can also be expanded to provide other tools to reinforce desired behavior, although these too have the potential to be inappropriately withheld. For example animals that thrive on social contact with humans or conspecifics find social attention extremely reinforcing. Unfortunately there has been a recommendation in some training circles to deprive an animal of all social contact and of all enrichment items or activities in order to make the training session the most reinforcing moment in the animals life. Practices such as these need to be considered not in the best interest of animal welfare.

Increasing Choice/Freedom of Movement:

A common practice in working with raptors is to employ the use of long duration tethering. This practice has a successful history in the sport of falconry and bird demonstrations. Tethering serves to restrict the movement of the bird to within a designated area. This can make it easier to approach a bird that shows fear responses and or aggressive behavior in response to trainers. However research has shown that giving animals (and people) the power to make choices is critical to well being. The more freedom an animal has to make decisions and choices, the more resilient it will be in those moments when choice is not an option. (Seligman 1990) (For example when an animal must be restrained for a medical procedure, crated or tethered for short intervals.)

Tethering can work to produce a raptor that is easily managed for bird shows. It can also be used in a manner that can provide as much freedom of movement as a free lofted bird. This can be seen for example in the use of an elevated jump box, long tether, and numerous perching options. While this may be true, most tethering arrangements seen today involve a single perch and a leash length of no more than 2-3 feet. In addition birds are often remaining tethered 24 hours a day except for short intervals in which the birds may be utilized in a program. The question trainers may ask is whether it is possible to achieve both goals of providing freedom of choice for the bird and at the same time produce a suitably trained bird for programs.

Given the opportunity the industry may find the answer more often than not is “yes.”  For example at one facility four raptors were free lofted in mews. Two of the birds presented aggressive behavior, two of the birds presented fear responses in regard to trainers. All of the birds had a history of being chased, captured and held on the glove against their will. By pairing positive reinforcers with trainers and reinforcing small approximations towards desired behaviors, all four birds were able to overcome their histories of coercion, remain free lofted and become candidates for education programming.

In addition a number of facilities are discovering by providing housing near flying fields/stages birds are able to be released directly from their enclosures to participate in programs. African Lion Safari and Rotterdam Zoo are two such facilities who have had excellent success with this design.

At African Lion Safari in Ontario, Canada tethering is employed in the initial stages of large owl training. Once the birds have demonstrated a level of dependability on the glove, the birds are moved to reside in release pens situated near the flying field. The birds are released directly from the pens to fly during the presentation. Gareth Morgan, Manager of Birds, reports there have been several advantages to this new practice. Releasing the birds from the pens has avoided the situation in which the owl needs to wait on a glove to be released. This method used previously often resulted in birds baiting in anticipation of flying. The owls were then often slow to leave the glove to fly after recovering from the bait. The new set up has also made it easier to utilize seasonal staff for releasing and catching birds as there is no handling required, just simple opening and closing of doors. Gareth has also noted that in general the owls seem much more responsive with the reduced amount of handling. They have also been able to fly some of the birds at even higher weights than when they were tethered. Two of the birds fly 3-4 oz heavier when free lofted.

In addition previously tethered Harris’ Hawks were also free lofted at African Lion Safari. Initially this was to prevent frost bite that can occur when tethered close to the ground. These birds were not released directly from the pen, but rather called to the glove when needed to participate in shows. The birds responded remarkably well to the change in housing and continued to fly successfully in education demonstrations.

The release pens were started as an experiment and Gareth states the results have been so successful he would not go back to their old methods.

Harold Schmidt, Curator of Birds at the Rotterdam Zoo was tasked with developing a bird show that did not utilize tethering for housing and also featured very little contact with the trainers on stage. This required careful collection planning. The species seen in the show include the following: Eurasian Eagle Owl, Burrowing owl, Barn Owl, Harris Hawk, White Backed Vulture, Black Kite, Scarlet macaw, Blue and Gold macaw, Black legged Seriema, Von der Deckens Hornbill, Blyths Hornbill, Keel Billed Toucan and Lilac breasted Roller.

A challenge was that sufficient space was required to house the numerous birds. However the zoo found the advantages far out weighed the disadvantages. For example Harold states “The biggest advantage in my opinion is that birds have a choice of where to sit and perch. Flying is of course limited in the aviaries, but the extra freedom the birds have over tethering is enormous. The disadvantages are that housing in aviaries is more expensive, limits the amount of birds and species, takes more time in cleaning and is pretty space consuming. However these seem to be more of a challenge for the people and not really a disadvantage for the bird.”

Harold has also observed that the bird housing situation has had an important impact on staff members. As there is a limited amount of birds and holding space, the trainers see it as very important that every bird is flown regularly. Bird behavior problems are addressed immediately as each bird consumes valuable aviary space. This has led trainers to be very proactive in addressing training issues.

Facilities such as African Lion Safari and the Rotterdam Zoo are demonstrating that providing more freedom of choice and movement can result in desirable outcomes for educational bird demonstrations. Evaluating long duration tethering practices may present challenges for facilities as it may mean providing adequate space for mews, collection planning, etc. however it also means attempting to provide for the needs of birds perhaps not considered in the past.


Animal training has evolved tremendously in many ways in recent years. By continuing to challenge the industry to examine best practices we can ensure we are adhering to standards that embrace optimum results for educational demonstrations while at the same time taking into consideration the highest standards in animal health and welfare practices.


Special thanks to Gareth Morgan, Manager of Birds, African Lion Safari and Harold Schmidt, Curator of Birds, Rotterdam Zoo for sharing their experiences and photographs.


Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies online resource
Heidenreich, B.E. (2006).Managing the Deliverance of Food to Create Motivation Proceedings Mid Atlantic States Association of Avian Veterinarians.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism. New York: Knopf.
Sidman, M. (1989) Coercion and its Fallout. Boston, MA, Authors Cooperative Inc., Publishers.

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