Educating Eloise: Enhancing the Life of a Special-Needs Orangutan

Special-needs orangutan Eloise LA Zoo (Photo by Nancy Bunn)

Special-needs orangutan Eloise (Photo by Great Ape Team Member Nancy Bunn)

Written by Nancy Bunn, Great Ape Team Member

“Eloise! Eloise, let’s go!” I call. I wait. I wait a bit longer. No orangutan emerges. What the heck is taking her so long? “What is she doing?” I ask my coworker, Megan. I hear laughter. “Eloise is not budging,” Megan shouts. She’s sitting here waiting for another foot massage.” A foot massage? She just had one!

Forty-five-year-old Eloise is one of six orangutans currently residing at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. She was born here in November 1968 to Sally, one of the Zoo’s first orangutan residents. The rest of the Zoo’s red ape contingent consists of Bruno, a 35-year-old male; Eloise’s daughter Rosie, 33; Rosie’s half-sister, Kalim, 31; and Kalim’s offspring, nine-year-old Bosco Orangina Berani (called “Berani” for short) and three-year-old Elka. The females are pure-bred Bornean while Bruno is a hybrid of the two orangutan species, Bornean and Sumatran.

Special-needs orangutan Eloise LA Zoo (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

Eloise (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

A special-needs orangutan, Eloise has recognizable physical and developmental challenges that have been present since birth, most likely caused by oxygen deprivation that occurred during delivery (the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck). She exhibits symptoms consistent with those seen in cerebral palsy patients.

One glance at Eloise reveals that she’s different. A lopsided face with droopy eyelids—especially the left—and a slack jaw that leaves her lower lip hanging open. Most noticeable are her curled feet. She has a history of her toenails growing into the skin of her feet. She has decreased mobility, limited range of motion, and tight muscles. Her legs scissor inwards as she moves, appearing bowed. And her cognitive processing is slower than that of the other orangutans.

Personality-wise, she can be a spitfire. Orangutans are naturally graceful great apes. It is amazing to witness them traveling or “semi-brachiating” through the rainforest canopy of their native habitat (the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra), using their powerful arms to swing from tree limb to tree limb and their prehensile feet (their big toes function like thumbs) to grasp vines and branches. The Zoo’s Red Ape Rain Forest exhibit provides artificial vines and fire hoses for the orangutans to climb or swing on. It is thrilling to watch our adult male, Bruno, magnificently traversing the uppermost regions of the exhibit, or Berani, a juvenile, effortlessly performing acrobatics and hanging upside-down.

Not so with Eloise. She climbs slowly, using her arms to painstakingly pull herself upward. She keeps her toes tightly clenched rather than using them as aids for grasping. It’s exhausting to watch her. She takes frequent breaks to rest. On the ground, Eloise maneuvers by rolling, crawling, or sliding on her stomach.

Special-needs orangutan Eloise LA Zoo (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

“Eloise moves slowly but is able to navigate throughout the habitat’s highs and lows.” (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

Through the years, Eloise adapted to her handicap, developing her own unique mode of locomotion. In her thirties, she began to exhibit subtle changes in her mobility—increased difficulty in climbing, more stiffness in her legs. There was concern among her keepers that as she aged, her condition would further deteriorate. It became apparent that a more hands-on approach was necessary to ensure her optimal care.

We discussed various options, including physical therapy. The veterinary staff, especially Dr. Janna Wynne and Dr. Leah Greer, supported keepers in this endeavor, making it a priority.

A consultation with a physical therapist was the first step. Sharon Salach, a therapist who normally works with human patients, graciously agreed to meet with the keepers to discuss Eloise’s physical challenges. First, Sharon observed all the orangutans moving throughout the exhibit. Then she focused on Eloise’s locomotion. After gathering all the pertinent information, she recommended a program of massage, stretching, and exercises.

Next came the brainstorming phase, determining how to best proceed and planning the necessary steps along the way. I envisioned myself one day massaging Eloise’s feet. But this goal seemed far, far away at the time. She was so guarded with her feet we couldn’t even clip her toenails, another high priority objective.

Training Days

Animal Keeper Nancy Bunn with training box for Eloise

Animal Keeper Nancy Bunn with training box for Eloise

In order to accomplish our goals for Eloise, we implemented a training program, specifically tailored to her physical handicap. It included training for basic behaviors necessary for husbandry, physical therapy, and nail management. All these behaviors were taught using protected contact. In other words, keepers do not go into the enclosures with the orangutans. We are always on the other side of the protective barriers.

There were preparations to complete before we could begin the actual training. First we had to determine the desired behaviors that we wanted to teach Eloise to accomplish on cue. We drafted a written plan documenting each goal behavior, along with the steps needed to achieve the end result. Each behavior has an auditory and a visual cue. A written record of each session is kept so that we can track her progress.

Basic behaviors include stationing (the animal sits facing the keeper) and targeting (she touches a body part to a particular location or object). The specific behaviors necessary for Eloise’s physical therapy included: “target foot” (placing her foot in a specific spot), “foot grab” (having her grasp a PVC pipe with her toes, to assist her in opening her toes wider), “hand grab” (grasping a PVC pipe with her hands), and “open toes.”

We taught her to present various body parts—such as chest, belly, shoulder, foot, head, ear, and hand—to the mesh. This type of training enables us to inspect suspected injuries and makes routine veterinary care much easier.

It was also necessary to desensitize Eloise to the presence of a nail file and clippers before we could ever use them.

A training program like this can be quite a challenge to execute. It not only requires knowledge of basic training principles, but also skill, timing, consistency, and more than a bit of luck. But the chance to improve Eloise’s quality of life and mobility made the effort more than worthwhile.

Positive Reinforcement

Eloise’s training was accomplished using operant conditioning, with an emphasis on positive reinforcement. The majority of zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) use operant conditioning as an animal husbandry and management tool. This type of training makes it possible to teach animals behaviors that facilitate their voluntary medical treatments, such as vaccinations, blood draws, ultrasounds, and cleaning of wounds.

Orangutan Eloise receives a massage from LA Zoo keepers

While one keeper massages Eloise’s feet, another monitors her hands and doles out a yogurt treat.

Operant conditioning is a science-based process in the field of behavioral psychology. The animal learns which behaviors get them what they want (i.e., they learn to operate on their environment). Reinforcement is a basic procedure to increase the likelihood that a desired behavior will happen again.

Both positive and negative reinforcement can strengthen a behavior. In positive reinforcement, something the animal finds desirable (such as food, attention, toys, companionship) is added. In negative reinforcement, an undesirable consequence is employed, such as removal of something undesirable to the animal.

Our focus is always on positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement builds trust between the trainer and the animal, allowing us to develop cooperative relationships with the animals in our care.

Following standard training protocols, we first introduced a conditioned reinforcer or bridging stimulus. This is a useful tool to communicate to the animal, “yes,” their response was what we wanted. We chose a clicker for Eloise.

During her training sessions, Eloise learned that a mechanical sound from a clicker denoted a favorite food item. The “click” signaled to her that her response or behavior was correct. Fairly quickly, she learned to associate the sound with a desirable item. Of course, she had her favorites, including fruit (especially grapes) and yogurt by the spoonful.

A bonus or “jackpot” item was given to Eloise if she moved beyond her comfort level or took a big leap forward in her training. A typical jackpot for her would be a whole orange or banana.

Training sessions are not mandatory; Eloise always has the choice to participate in a session or not. Most of the time, she chooses to do so—lured not only by potential food rewards but also the extra attention from her keepers, which is also reinforcing.

A Foot in the Door

Responding to verbal and physical cues, Eloise, the special-needs orangutan, extends her foot, opens her toes, and allows LA Zoo animal keepers to file her nails.

Fancy footwork: Responding to verbal and physical cues, Eloise extends her foot, opens her toes, and allows keepers to file her nails.

From the start, there were multiple obstacles to address. The biggest challenge was how to gain access to Eloise’s feet while ensuring both her safety and ours.

The design of the indoor Red Ape Rain Forest facility prevented access to her feet. We considered cutting a trap door in the metal caging, but that was quickly dismissed as it would compromise the strength and stability of the steel structure.

We decided the best option was to utilize an existing blood-draw portal that was part of the building’s original construction. This small opening was designed to allow keepers to take blood samples from an ape’s outstretched arm. Unfortunately, it allowed access to only one leg at a time. It was also positioned too high off the ground.

The beginning stage of Eloise’s training was like a comedy act. Often, the equipment used were items we salvaged—a trash can for Eloise to sit on secured to the caging by bungee cords, a piece of plywood topped with foam rubber to massage her legs on.

Orangutan Eloise trainingThen our amazing construction crew, led by Construction and Maintenance Supervisor Tom LoVullo, came to the rescue. They developed a “box seat” for Eloise that would elevate her to the proper height for her physical therapy sessions. The box has wheels and can be easily moved into position. They also built a beautiful platform that extends out of the caging for Eloise to comfortably lay her legs upon.

Now with all the elements in place, the physical therapy truly began. Our intention was to do two to three sessions each week.

First, Eloise learned to do leg extensions side to side, stretching her legs to a target. She opened her toes on cue—as much as she was physically able. She stretched her arms over her head. Initially, we used a cable pulley for her to use for the arm exercises, but she dismantled it.

In the beginning, Eloise was very leery of us touching her feet or legs, swiftly drawing them back out of reach if we got too close. She was especially guarded with her feet and resisted our attempts to open her toes manually. Massage was out of the question.

Eloise soon learned that the placement of the “box seat” in her bedroom was a cue that a massage was coming. Gradually, she learned to trust us and to actually look forward to the experience.

A session requires two keepers. One keeper focuses on monitoring Eloise’s hands (orangutans are very strong, curious, and grabby) and delivering the reinforcement. The other keeper does the actual manipulating of her legs. Once the safety panel is opened, Eloise is cued to extend her foot outside of the caging. A warm cloth is wrapped around her feet. Keepers then proceed to gently manipulate and massage her legs and feet.

Orangutan Eloise nail clippingDesensitizing her to having her nails clipped and filed also took a while, but we finally did accomplish this important task. Hopefully, no more overgrown toenails!

Our success with Eloise has been deeply gratifying and heartwarming. Progress has indeed been made. We’ve managed to desensitize her legs and feet to touch, increased range of motion in her legs, and gotten her to open her toes wider. We’ve also gained the ability to massage her lower extremities and file and clip her nails.

This success has been a team effort. Fellow team members Val Renzetti and Megan Fox have been instrumental in assisting with nail management and massage.

Eloise will never glide gracefully through the exhibit like our other orangutans, but the strides we’ve made with her have enhanced her daily life and improved our ability to care for her. The training process itself has also been enriching for her, an activity she enjoys and one which provides cognitive stimulation.

Nowadays “Miss El,” as we affectionately call Eloise, anticipates her “foot massages.” If a session ends sooner than she’d like, she is very vocal. A rigorous headshake, a jump up and down while vocalizing in essence means, “Hey, keep it up! Don’t stop!”

About eight years ago, when we began this journey, the idea of giving Eloise regular foot massages seemed like an unattainable goal. Even if we could figure out the logistics of accessing her lower extremities, I wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to relax her toes and trust us to manipulate her feet. So on this day, when I repeatedly call for Eloise to leave her bedroom and join the other apes out on exhibit, only to hear Megan laughingly respond that “Miss El” is obstinately refusing to budge until she gets another massage, I have to laugh, too.
We’ve come a long way.

Originally published in Zoo View, Spring 2014

Orangutan Eloise interacting with LA Zoo visitor 2009 (Photo by Michelle Pearson)

Orangutan Eloise interacting with LA Zoo visitor 2009 (Photo by Michelle Pearson)