Zuzu, a 5-month-old hound mix puppy hailing from the Humane Society of Greater Rochester’s Lollypop Farm, is the pick of the litter. This young dog was specially chosen as the Seneca Park Zoo’s first elephant barn dog, and she’s already winning over her giant new pachyderm pals.
A handful of zoos across the country have launched programs like this in the past with elephants and other animals, so the team at Seneca Park in New York wanted to try it out — with a dog. Lindsay Brinda, the zoo’s elephant manager and assistant curator, attended meetings with elephant managers at other zoos and learned about elephant barn dog programs around the country.
“I reached out to our local Humane Society Lollypop Farms when we were looking for a dog. They have behaviorists there, and I gave them a list of the behaviors I would want the dog or the puppy to have for this job. And they found her for us. I wanted a very calm puppy,” Brinda tells PEOPLE.
“They have a farm there, with horses and pigs, and I wanted the puppy to be very calm around the large farm animals,” she continues. “I wanted the dog to like multiple people and be able to be handled by multiple people and not just want to be handled by one specific person like some breeds do. I wanted a younger dog because I wanted this dog to be around for , but I left the rest of it up to them.”
Zuzu arrived at Seneca Park Zoo last Sunday, and Brinda proudly reports that she’s doing great. Zuzu is “super calm” and she’s already learned three behaviors. “She loves everybody and the public loves her,” says Brinda. “The elephants are getting used to her.”
Right now, during training sessions with the elephants, the zookeepers are giving the four “Golden Girls” — senior females named Genny C, Lilac, Moki and Chana, age 36 to 41 — their favorite treats (bagels!) while Zuzu calmly sits and watches them. There’s a barrier creating distance between the canine and her large mammal counterparts as they get to know each other, but eventually the zoo hopes that both species will be comfortable living in the same space together. Each elephant met Zuzu by themselves in a training session, and Brinda reports the pup and her pachyderm pals are getting along well thus far.
Through Zuzu, the zoo aims to explain and show the public how it uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to train the elephants and other zoo animals to participate and socialize with each other.
Larry Staub, director of the Seneca Park Zoo, says, “We find a lot of guests always wonder, ‘How do you get these large animals to do different behaviors, and how do you train them?’ They’re almost incredulous that we’re able to do that under the conditions of a zoo. So by showing them on a dog — which they’re more familiar with because many of them have dogs or have friends …read more