#95: Anaconda Training

In the past few weeks some of the trainers have introduced you to and updated you on the different types of animals we've had the opportunity to work with during the fur seals' absence (lumpfish, lobsters and frogs). Rochelle and I have been working with two young female anacondas, Marion and Wilson, who were born here at the Aquarium last January. (Video of their birth)

Presently, they're living in two tanks in the Aquarium Medical Center. In the beginning Rochelle and I just tried to spend time with the girls getting to know them so that they would be comfortable working with us. Never having worked with snakes we needed to learn about their physiology, their likes and dislikes and, perhaps most importantly, their behavior. Working closely with Scott Dowd, who runs the Aquarium's fresh water gallery, Aquarium biologists Pilar Gibson and Eric Payne and Veterinary Services, we learned a lot of what we needed to know to help us develop an effective training plan.

Recently Rochelle and I, along one of Scott Dowd's volunteers named Marion (no relation to the snake), took advantage of the opportunity to visit New England Reptile Distributors in Plaistow, New Hampshire. As you can see from the photographs, the folks there were kind enough to introduce us to some of the reptiles that they care for and work with on a daily basis and pass on some of their knowledge about reptiles in general and snakes in particular.

One of the things that Rochelle and I learned early on was that snakes rarely, if ever, lie in a fully extended position and, when relaxed, tend to coil up or wrap around an object, a position that makes it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image when you x-ray them. So, one of the first behaviors that Rochelle and I wanted to train Marion and Wilson to do was to go into and remain still in a clear PVC pipe so that Veterinary Services could obtain the type of x-rays they need to effectively monitor their health.

We started off by having them move through very short, larger diameter sections of pipe so that they could be desensitized to the feel of the pipe on their bodies. Just as we would do with the seals, we progressed, in small steps or approximations, to longer, narrower pieces of pipe that would begin to slow their movement to the point where, once in the pipe, they might remain motionless long enough (about 1/20th of a second) for an x-ray to be taken. In the training process we encountered a few challenges. Marion and Wilson eat once a week so reinforcing them with food when they did a good job was not an option. Also, some snakes, especially anacondas, spend a lot of time resting. In the wild this resting might better be described as "laying in wait." Anacondas are, to some extent, ambush predators that submerge themselves just underwater or along muddy banks and wait for their prey to happen by.

So, unlike the seals, who generally anticipate training sessions and seem to be waiting for us when we head out to their exhibit, we never know how active or participatory Marion and Wilson might be when we plan on working with them. When we plan to do a training session we have to make sure that we have plenty of time to devote to it. If the snakes are resting it might take some time for them to warm up and become active enough for us to work with them. Just as we had to desensitize Marion and Wilson to the feel of the pipes around their body, we also need to desensitize them to different surroundings, in this case, the x-ray room. Fortunately, desensitizing them to anything at all hasn't been too difficult as they're actually very curious about their surroundings and have made the most of any opportunity to explore and investigate something new.

In the video you might be able to tell that Marion would have been perfectly happy to go off exploring every nook and cranny that the x-ray room has to offer. But you can also see that she did a great job of going through the pipe. As long as she is, we figured from the get go that she, as well as Wilson, would need to be x-rayed in sections. At some point you might be able to hear me say "hold it" as I apply a very little bit of gentle pressure to her back end to get her to remain still long enough for an x-ray to be taken. After she holds a second or two I say "good," release her hind end and let her move some distance through the pipe before applying a little pressure again, saying "hold it" as I do. Fortunately, Dr. Innis, one of our vets, happened along and reminded me that when we actually do the x-rays Rochelle and I will need to wear bulky, heavy lead lined gloves to protect our hands. Though Marion doesn't seem to be bothered by the gloves at all I can tell you that they made it a little difficult to manipulate her.

No worries. Practice (training) makes perfect.




  1. This was a really really cool blog entry! I love it! I never would have thought to train the anacondas, but it makes so much sense. For me, the most interesting part was reading how you would reward the anacondas without using food. Again, it all makes a lot of sense.

    It seems no animal is un-trainable for the marine mammal team!

  2. It's far more likely that they have been acclimated to handling and not so much trained. Ask pretty much anyone who deals with snakes and they will tell you that training, at least in the traditional sense, is just not possible.

    Other than that great article. I'll have to take a trip to the aquarium one of these days just to to see the Annie's. Been almost 20 years since I've had the chance. I have however been to NERD several times and that's always a great experience.


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