In This Issue

Interview with Dr. Christina A. Alligood

We interviewed Dr. Christina A. Alligood about her experience using behavior analytic assessment and intervention techniques with zoo animals.

Dr. Christina A. AlligoodDr. Alligood earned a Master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2003, and a Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2007. She is also a doctoral-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D). Since 2007, she has worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. Much of her initial work focused on a multi-faceted conservation program for Key Largo woodrats, which received a Bean Award for Significant Achievement in Captive Breeding from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2009) and a Federal Challenge Grant (2010) in collaboration with the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge for population monitoring work on Key Largo. 

Dr. Alligood is now a member of the Behavioral Husbandry team, which oversees training, enrichment, and welfare programs for animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Seas at Epcot, and several other locations. She is also the president of the Applied Animal Behavior Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and an instructor for the AZA Training Applications in Zoo & Aquarium Settings course. She has served as a grant reviewer for the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and the AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, and as a manuscript reviewer for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and the International Journal of Comparative Psychology. Dr. Alligood, thank you for making time to contribute to the Division 25 Recorder. We know you have a very busy schedule.

Can you tell us about your role at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

I am a member of the Behavioral Husbandry team, which is responsible for overseeing animal training and enrichment programs at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot, Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, and Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawai'i. My colleagues on the Behavioral Husbandry team each have specific animal-care teams with whom they work to maintain effective programs. I consult with all of the teams as needed to provide assistance with behavioral problem solving, documenting behavior, and generally using the principles of behavior to set the right conditions for success. I also provide strategic planning assistance for the Animal Husbandry department.

How did you become interested in this specialization and application within behavior analysis?

I have always loved animals and enjoyed visiting zoos, but the spark really happened when I saw some of Terry Maple’s students present at an ABA convention when I was in graduate school. Terry’s students worked with animals at Zoo Atlanta, and these particular students were studying stimulus relations in African elephants. At the time, I was studying stimulus relations in humans, and this opened up a whole new world of ideas. The more I learned, the more interested I became in exploring ways that behavior analysis could help zoos and aquariums reach their animal-care goals. When I had the opportunity to get started here at Disney, I couldn’t pass it up. I spent a few years working on endangered species conservation and learned to do things I never imagined I would, such as working in the field with wild animals. The skills I learned and the relationships I built helped lead me to my current position, which is focused on applying behavior analysis to animals in managed circumstances.

What techniques might you use to train staff? Do they differ from techniques adopted in other types of organizations? The techniques vary depending on the learners and the skills, but like any other training scenario, we need to find and use effective reinforcers to build and maintain the behavior we’re looking for. We also have an excellent learning and development team that uses good principles of instructional design when creating formal training programs. In more informal settings with our animal care teams, we use a lot of coaching, modeling, and feedback, breaking goals into small steps and reinforcing successive approximations. Many times we are training trainers in complex repertoires, so it doesn’t always look like a linear process leading directly to fluency in a pre-determined skill. Our coaching style in these situations is very collaborative because we are consulting rather than directing or supervising.

What types of behaviors are included in animal training at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

What are some of the most interesting skills trained? Many of the behaviors our animals learn are related to basic husbandry, such as opening their mouths to get their teeth brushed, displaying their feet for hoof trims, or stepping on a scale to be weighed. Some skills are trained for the animals’ enrichment as well. For example, some of our keepers have trained sheep and goats to run an agility course. This training helps keep the animals physically fit, mentally stimulated, and comfortable around theme park guests. Plus, watching them leap hurdles and weave in and out of poles is pretty fun.

How do behavior analysts impact activities at zoos?

The work that behavior analysts can do in zoos (and other animal settings) goes beyond animal training. I work with animal trainers, but I identify myself as a behavior analyst. The two differ in a similar way that the role of behavior analysts in schools differs from the role of teachers, and behavior analysts can have similar impacts in both settings. While operant conditioning has had a tremendous impact on activities at zoos, the influence of behavior-analytic problem solving frameworks such as functional assessment has so far been more limited. This is partly due to the fact that the connection between the field of behavior analysis and zoos is still emerging. I believe that behavior analysts have a lot to offer zoos, and that this area of work can help to increase the breadth and depth of our field. Typical behavioral goals at zoos include training animals to participate in husbandry and medical procedures, arranging opportunities for them to engage in species-typical behaviors, and encouraging them to spend time in areas where visitors can see them. Behavior analysts’ expertise in defining behavior operationally, framing challenges in terms of contingencies, and arranging appropriate schedules of reinforcement can help us make significant contributions in achieving these behavioral goals. Behavior analysts’ impact on activities at zoos is aided by productive collaborations with colleagues from other disciplines also interested in zoo animal behavior (e.g., ethology, comparative and cognitive psychology). I’ve found that some of my skills overlap with my colleagues from other disciplines, and others provide a different perspective that has proven useful in this setting.

What can zoo staff gain by collaborating with behavior analysts? How receptive are they?

Collaborations with colleagues from various disciplines help to provide a variety of perspectives on the challenges of caring for animals in a zoological setting. I asked my teammates what they gain specifically by collaborating with me, and the first benefit they mentioned was the perspective on behavior as a subject matter in its own right, in the moment, for each individual, unconstrained by what internal processes the behavior might indicate or what the behavior might “mean”. From that perspective, we have placed a strong focus on building functional assessment skills. Using the three-term contingency as a framework for behavioral problem solving helps organize ideas, give teams a common starting point, and helps to focus the process on the facts of the situation. Once a team has experience applying this framework, they are better prepared to be proactive in setting conditions for success. In my experience, zoo staff’s receptivity to collaboration is largely a function of the contingencies set by the collaborator. Soft skills, including identifying and using effective reinforcers in our consulting relationships, are crucial.

Can you tell us about the environmental enrichment offered at Disney?

Working on enrichment programs is so much fun because our keepers really get to be creative. Typical goals of environmental enrichment include increasing species-typical behavior and giving animals more choices and control over their environment. We try to set the occasion for animals to engage in many of the same behaviors that they would in the wild. Browse, logs, and rocks are added to reptile and amphibian enclosures to provide hiding spots. Our rhinos have a mud wallow in their exhibit to encourage selfmaintenance behaviors. The storks are provided with the materials to gather and build nests. Our keepers place different perfumes, extracts, and spices around the tiger exhibit to encourage rubbing, scratching, scent marking, and other natural behaviors. They have also found lots of creative ways to encourage foraging, locomotion, and object manipulation in many of our animals – for example, some of our primates receive portions of their diet in puzzle feeders that can be placed in multiple locations throughout their exhibit. They must find and manipulate the feeders to get the food. This is designed to increase activity and promote positive social interactions. We use a model called SPIDER – Setting Goals, Planning, Implementing, Documenting, Evaluating, Readjusting (Mellen & Mac- Phee, 2001) – to develop and maintain enrichment programs. One of our focuses now is working with teams to strengthen that framework in ways that help them make day-to-day management decisions on an ongoing basis.

What kind of training would you recommend for someone who might be interested in working in a similar position as you?

Because the connection between behavior analysis and zoos is relatively new, there is no clear path to a position like mine. Right now, students will probably not see zoos posting behavior analyst positions because in general the term as we use it is not widely recognized. Because of this, students should be open to different kinds of experiences that may allow them to apply and build upon their behavior analytic training. With that understanding, I do have some suggestions based on my experience. Anyone aiming to apply behavior analysis at a zoo needs a solid foundation in the discipline, so I recommend an ABAI-accredited program that will provide well-rounded conceptual, basic, and applied training in behavior analysis. My particular role is a staff position with consulting characteristics. I recommend that students interested in this type of position diversify their education to include animal science and consulting skills. Several behavior analysis programs, including the University of North Texas and the University of Florida, offer opportunities to connect with zoos. Other programs offer opportunities in other types of animal-care settings, such as shelters (e.g., Western Michigan University, University of Kansas). If this type of connection is unavailable through a university, students can gain animal care experience working at a farm, ranch, zoo, aquarium, or other facility. Direct animal care experience is particularly valuable to your credibility at zoos. Coursework in biology, zoology, or other related fields is also helpful When possible, students should take advantage of practicum opportunities that will strengthen their “soft skills” such as diplomacy, negotiation, and gaining buy-in. Building strong, mutually reinforcing relationships with colleagues is critical to influencing programmatic change.

What are your dissemination strategies?

My colleagues and I use multiple strategies for disseminating best practices in training and enrichment to our animal care teams. We have formal training and enrichment methods classes, structured problem solving sessions, informal team training and enrichment planning meetings, and training sessions in which we are able to provide one-on-one coaching, modeling, and feedback.

In terms of external dissemination, we frequently give presentations and workshops at conferences, serve as instructors for AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) courses, and publish in peerreviewed and non-peer-reviewed outlets. We enjoy assisting animal keepers in their dissemination efforts, which often include poster presentations and articles for animal care publications.