“Extraordinary Creatures and How to Care for Them,” a brand-new animal show debuts May 7 at the Zoo’s Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater. We watched the show’s superstars – keepers and animals – train ahead of the grand opening.
During the show, the live audience meets a wizard who cares for mythical creatures and arrives in Tacoma with a broken magical staff. To restore the staff, the wizard must learn how to care for animals from the keepers at Point Defiance Zoo. The keepers teach the wizard how they train animals to participate in their own health care and how to provide daily enrichment to stimulate their natural behaviors.
“Training the animals and earning their trust allows our keepers and veterinary team to easily give them wellness exams when needed,” said assistant curator Maureen.
All the animals in the show are trained through positive reinforcement. Many are trained with a target and clicker. A target can be a long pole with an object on the end or an outstretched hand for the animal to touch. The clicker is a small noise-making device that keepers click each time an animal completes a desired behavior or action. That noise becomes associated with the behavior they’d like the animal to repeat. The animal is then rewarded for the desired behavior with a special treat.
“Keepers work hard to develop strong, trusting bonds with the animals and ensure they live healthy, stimulating lives,” said Maureen.
Training some animals is easier than others. For example, Caper the macaw learned his role for the show in just five days while keepers have been working with Forrest the eagle owl for two years to prepare for the opening.
“We let each animal go at its own pace,” said keeper Sara. “Training is always positive and collaborative and the animals have the option to participate. It’s all about offering choice to our animals.”
Many keepers care for and train each of the animals every day, but for this story we highlighted the keepers we watched train on one day in April.
Caper the Macaw
“We trained Caper to fly safely in the theater so that he can get plenty of exercise to keep him healthy,” said Sara.
During the show, guests will see Caper the macaw walk down a ramp, amble across a rope on a bridge, and fly to a keeper. When a keeper shows Caper two fingers, he presents his feathers. When a keeper shows the bird an open palm, he squawks. For each activity he does correctly, keepers reward him with a healthy treat like walnuts.
Wasabi the Skunk
“Skunks spend a lot of time searching for bugs or plants to eat in the forest,” explained keeper Adrienne. “Here at Wild Wonders, we give Wasabi a puzzle feeder so he has to work to get his meal just like he would in the wild.”
During the show, guests will see Wasabi push and roll his puzzle feeder across the stage.
“Because skunks can be shy, Wasabi sometimes needs a lot of positive reinforcement (plenty of treats) during training,” said Adrienne.
Jasper the Canada Lynx
“Lynx have scent glands on their paws, so we give Jasper plenty of scents to encourage his natural behaviors,” said Maureen.
During the show, Jasper shows off his enormous paws as he walks across the stage, jumps on a stump, and scratches a log with a mystical scent on it.
“We call exciting scents, like cloves or paprika, ‘sensory enrichment’ at the zoo,” explained Maureen. “The scent itself is the reward for Jasper’s decision to participate.”
Walnut the Beaver
“Beavers in the wild swim all the time, so we give Walnut and his beaver family access to their very own swimming pool!” said Adrienne.
During the show, guests will see Walnut enjoy a dip in his private pool and enjoy an apple as a reward.
Forrest the Eagle Owl
“Encouraging Forrest to fly helps keep him in peak physical health, much like Caper the macaw,” said Sara.
During the show, Forrest will soar and swoop overhead from perch to perch.
Rocket also known as Professor Dumbledog
Rocket, a new rescued dog, makes his debut as “Professor Dumbledog” in the action-packed show.
“Many people can relate to training dogs, so we expect him to be popular with our guests,” said Sara.
Guests will learn that one way to care for dogs is by letting them stretch their legs and have a drink of water after a long trip.
“Dogs are highly intelligent animals and need a lot of attention and exercise,” said Sara. “We train Rocket multiple times a day, in addition to his many daily walks through the zoo.”
About the New Show
Not every animal will appear in every show, but the cast of more than a dozen includes Clark the king vulture who will fly overhead, clouded leopard Banyan who will saunter across the stage, and tree-climbing tamandua Gonzo who will extend his long tongue for a snack.
Here is the schedule for the show:
May 7-June 17
Saturday and Sunday: 12pm and 3pm
June 18-Sept. 5
Daily: 12pm and 3pm
Watch the animals train below: