Amanda Carroll dreamed of working with animals. Now a keeper at the Toronto Zoo, she tells what its like to train orangutans

Amanda Carroll was always drawn to animals over people. A shy, quiet kid from Stratford, Ont., she discovered early on a special connection to the four-legged friends in her life. “I remember coming to the Toronto Zoo as a kid,” Carroll says. “I always thought (working there) would be the coolest job, but never in a million years did I actually think I would get a job here.”Far fewer than a million years later, following an internship at Florida’s Center for Great Apes, Carroll became a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo.As a generalist in the zoo’s Indo-Malaya Pavilion, she works with animals of varying sizes and colours, including fish, birds and tigers. But Sumatran orangutans are her specialty. “They’re so smart and they keep you on your toes,” she says. “The days go by fast.”A typical day for a zookeeper includes behavioural training. Apes, for example, need to learn to present a body part to veterinarians for medical treatment — that means turning around to show their back, offering their arm for an injection or putting their nose up to the mesh enclosure to get a cut disinfected.Zoo staff use positive reinforcement during these sessions to reward behaviours they want to encourage and walk away from ones they don’t, such as aggression. Rewards typically involve food, but Carroll says orangutans also respond to praise. “They do react to ‘good job,’” she says. “They’re really good at understanding English. It’s amazing.”As with human relationships, Carroll says the bond between keeper and animal requires trust. “Even just with shifting, we want them to trust us that nothing bad is going to happen when they (move) to another area,” she says. “We have two male teenagers, so there’s lots of hormones going on there. We need to know what dynamics are going on in our group and whether one isn’t comfortable shifting to the pen beside somebody else.”Also, as with humans, Carroll says personalities can be “so different” from one primate to the next. The Toronto Zoo currently houses six orangutans, including Puppe, a 54-year-old female, the oldest one in North America. Puppe cooperates with some keepers more than with others and makes them work hard for her trust, while another female, Ramai, is known as a rule follower.But behavioural training doesn’t just make a keeper’s job easier, it also allows the zoo’s orangutans to participate in studies that benefit their relatives in the wild.Budi, Kembali and Jingga, the zoo’s three teens, are part of a study tracking the growth of orangutans’ adult teeth. This dental-emergence data helps researchers better understand the animal’s development in the wild and rehabilitation centres to better determine an orphan orangutan’s age. Behavioural training at the Toronto Zoo has prepared orangutans like Jingga for the simple task of opening her mouth so keepers can shoot video and count the teeth coming in.For his part, Kembali is learning to be especially creative. Instead of the keepers requesting a specific behaviour, he’s rewarded for coming up with something completely new. “If we give him props — a hat or a scarf or some little toy — he’ll put it on his head or in his mouth or just do weird things with it,” Carroll says. “They’re goofy and ridiculous. It’s just so cool to watch them.”

Amanda Carroll dreamed of working with animals. Now a keeper at the Toronto Zoo, she tells what its like to train orangutans

Amanda Carroll was always drawn to animals over people. A shy, quiet kid from Stratford, Ont., she discovered early on a special connection to the four-legged friends in her life. “I remember coming to the Toronto Zoo as a kid,” Carroll says. “I always thought (working there) would be the coolest job, but never in a million years did I actually think I would get a job here.”

Far fewer than a million years later, following an internship at Florida’s Center for Great Apes, Carroll became a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo.

As a generalist in the zoo’s Indo-Malaya Pavilion, she works with animals of varying sizes and colours, including fish, birds and tigers. But Sumatran orangutans are her specialty. “They’re so smart and they keep you on your toes,” she says. “The days go by fast.”

A typical day for a zookeeper includes behavioural training. Apes, for example, need to learn to present a body part to veterinarians for medical treatment — that means turning around to show their back, offering their arm for an injection or putting their nose up to the mesh enclosure to get a cut disinfected.

Zoo staff use positive reinforcement during these sessions to reward behaviours they want to encourage and walk away from ones they don’t, such as aggression. Rewards typically involve food, but Carroll says orangutans also respond to praise. “They do react to ‘good job,’” she says. “They’re really good at understanding English. It’s amazing.”

As with human relationships, Carroll says the bond between keeper and animal requires trust. “Even just with shifting, we want them to trust us that nothing bad is going to happen when they (move) to another area,” she says. “We have two male teenagers, so there’s lots of hormones going on there. We need to know what dynamics are going on in our group and whether one isn’t comfortable shifting to the pen beside somebody else.”

Also, as with humans, Carroll says personalities can be “so different” from one primate to the next. The Toronto Zoo currently houses six orangutans, including Puppe, a 54-year-old female, the oldest one in North America. Puppe cooperates with some keepers more than with others and makes them work hard for her trust, while another female, Ramai, is known as a rule follower.

But behavioural training doesn’t just make a keeper’s job easier, it also allows the zoo’s orangutans to participate in studies that benefit their relatives in the wild.

Budi, Kembali and Jingga, the zoo’s three teens, are part of a study tracking the growth of orangutans’ adult teeth. This dental-emergence data helps researchers better understand the animal’s development in the wild and rehabilitation centres to better determine an orphan orangutan’s age. Behavioural training at the Toronto Zoo has prepared orangutans like Jingga for the simple task of opening her mouth so keepers can shoot video and count the teeth coming in.

For his part, Kembali is learning to be especially creative. Instead of the keepers requesting a specific behaviour, he’s rewarded for coming up with something completely new. “If we give him props — a hat or a scarf or some little toy — he’ll put it on his head or in his mouth or just do weird things with it,” Carroll says. “They’re goofy and ridiculous. It’s just so cool to watch them.”