Unlikely students' success at Werribee Open Range Zoo

19 January 2021

Some unlikely students are learning to tuck themselves in after a long day, thanks to keepers at Werribee Open Range Zoo.

The Zoo’s creep of five Leopard tortoises has begun recalling in a procession that is anything but slow. This important training will allow keepers to limit the amount of handling required and increase long-term animal welfare by giving the tortoises greater choice and control.

Keeper Ben de Waal said a combination of auditory and visual cues, followed by a delicious reward was the key to making these school-yard sessions more enticing.

“We use positive reinforcement to encourage the tortoises to participate in their training,” said Mr de Waal. “They have learned to associate the red bucket and the sound of my voice with the delicious chicory or hibiscus flower that they’ll be rewarded with once they travel the short distance.”

Werribee Open Range Zoo’s reptiles, including tortoises, Madagascan boas and eastern blue tongue skinks are given regular access to different habitats and terrains as part of their ongoing enrichment. Mr de Waal hopes the training will allow for more regular roaming enrichments, where the tortoises are set loose on the neighbouring open grass under a keeper’s watchful eye.

“Our tortoises can travel a surprising distance,” said Mr de Waal. “So, having this training as a resource will give our tortoises more opportunities to explore their surrounds without the need for us to physically intervene.”

Werribee Open Range Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary re-opened to visitors in October under the latest changing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions by the Victorian Government. Daily visitor numbers are capped and all tickets must be pre-purchased online. For more information, visit: www.zoo.org.au