When developing a behavior plan for an animal in our care, the team implements a strategy known as the ABC approach. In this strategy, our experts identify and analyze three aspects—antecedent, behavior and consequence—to help develop a plan.
The first step in this approach is to identify and explain the behavior that needs to be addressed, known as the target behavior; in this case, Louis' scratching. Next up is analyzing the antecedents, when the team determines the conditions that take place before the target behavior. Finally, the team examines the consequences—in other words, the result of the target behavior. There's always something the animal is hoping to gain from the target behavior, according to Liz.
"All behavior has meaning," Liz explained. "Animals don't do something unless they're satisfying some need."
In the case of Louis, the team implemented the ABC approach and observed that when Louis was scratching at the door, Aquarium staff would go into his enclosure to check on him or to feed him. They determined that he was getting reinforced with attention or food often enough that he made the connection between scratching and receiving those "rewards."
"Since rescued animals eventually return to the ocean, it's important to quickly address any behavior that may be inadvertently creating positive associations with—and reliance on—humans," National Aquarium Senior Rehabilitation Biologist Margot Madden explained. "At the Aquarium, we're grateful to have an in-house team of animal behavior experts ready to help when cases like Louis' arise."
After this analysis, Liz's team worked with the Animal Rescue team to develop a behavioral plan that would change the consequence of Louis' behavior so that he didn't get what he wanted—food and attention—from this unwanted scratching behavior. They decided that staff members who worked with Louis would not enter his enclosure and feed him when he was scratching; instead, they would go in and give him food when he was calm and not scratching. The plan paid off; only three days after implementation, Louis' scratching behavior began to improve.
Giving a Skink Some Space
When ambassador animal Oscar the prehensile-tailed skink arrived at the Aquarium, Liz's team quickly noticed that he didn't like to be touched.
"He clearly had some aversive experiences being handled," Liz explained. "So we decided to flip the script."
Instead of forcing Oscar to engage in a behavior he was clearly uncomfortable with, the team gave him the option to exit his enclosure onto a log prop on his own terms. When he made the choice to come on to the log, he was rewarded with food and had the opportunity to explore his new space. According to Liz, the more time Oscar spent at the Aquarium, the more inquisitive he became.