Meerkats are top of the class with target mastery

25 May 2021

The clever Meerkat mob at Werribee Open Range Zoo have become active agents in their own healthcare by simply touching their noses to the end of a target stick.

The behaviour has been established following successive daily training sessions between the zoo keepers and the playful mob.

African River Trail Keeper Nicola McCleery said the target training allows staff to observe the physical condition of the lithe animals as they stretch up on their hind legs, similar to the species’ iconic sentry posture.

During training sessions, we’re asking our meerkats to reach up and touch their nose to a yellow ball at the end of the targeting stick,” Ms McCleery said. “This allows us to get a good look at their body condition and encourage them to move to particular areas of their habitat.”

The comparatively simple target training forms a strong base for diverse participatory behaviours that help minimise stress and intervention during veterinary procedures and routine healthcare.

We can build upon this targeting behaviour to develop much more complex behaviours that allow our meerkats to proactively participate in their own healthcare,” Ms McCleery said. “These behaviours could range from voluntary weigh-ins, nail trims, chest and stomach X-rays and eventually presenting their hands for injections.”

All training across the three Zoos Victoria properties is supported by positive reinforcement to help build an enduring and trusting bond between the keepers and individual animals.

Likewise, maintaining choice and control among all animals is fundamental to the success of training programs. Each animal is able to decide whether or not to participate, which is why consistency is so important to reinforcing learnt behaviours.

Ms McCleery said the Meerkat mob are adept learners, taking to lessons in short strides.

“After a slow and steady start, our Meerkats are progressing through their training program well and meeting all their milestones.”