CINCINNATI (AP) — Without whispering a word or touching its tush, Megan-Kate Ferguson gets Cinder the pig to sit.
A simple hand signal — followed by a tasty reward — does the trick. "Good boy!" says the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden's 31-year-old curator of animal development and training.
They've been working on it for only a day, but Cinder — a nearly 3-month-old Juliana pig, the smallest of all miniature pigs — is quickly catching on. Which isn't surprising, given Ferguson's success in training timid cougars, a head-butting miniature cow and an ornery camel, among others.
Zoos have long relied on operant conditioning — a fancy term for techniques that modify animal behavior. But with Ferguson's hiring last year, "we're taking it to another level," said David Oehler, the Cincinnati Zoo's director of animal collections.
The zoo said she was overqualified when she applied for a job in late 2010.
At 15, Ferguson was the youngest licensed wildlife rehabilitator in her native Washington state. At 19, she left for Thailand and Myanmar, where she trained dolphins and worked with elephants, monkeys and other exotic species.
Ferguson returned home and planned to go to veterinary school. But she was sidetracked by Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel condition.
So she worked as a dog trainer and latched on with animal training and rehabilitation centers, mostly on the West Coast. She was living in Portland and in need of health insurance when she was turned down for a Cincinnati Zoo job.
A few months later, though, the zoo called back. It had obtained two cougar cubs from a rehab facility in Nebraska and wanted to feature them in a new exhibit. Would she train them on a contract basis?
In February 2011 Ferguson loaded her car and headed east.
The cougar cubs, brothers named Joseph and Tecumseh, were so "super fearful" of people, Ferguson wasn't sure they would ever be put on display.
"Animals won't work with you unless they have some sort of trust," Ferguson said. Trust develops over time. So she spent a lot of time with Joseph and Tecumseh — every day for nine and a half months straight.
She fed them. She walked them. She ran with them.
"That's what they needed. Literally, I couldn't leave them."
Kathy Watkins, a trainer with the zoo's Cat Ambassador Program who worked alongside Ferguson, said her colleague exuded confidence.
"I think the animals understood that, and respected her right from the beginning."
Ferguson forged an especially strong bond with Joseph, just as Watkins did with Tecumseh. At the end of a day, Ferguson would recline on a cot, with Joseph next to her. He'd put his paw over her shoulder and purr in her ear, into the night.
Animal training is a growing specialty within the zoo world "because we realize how important this is to the health and welfare of the animals," said Steve Feldman, senior vice president with the Silver Spring, Md.-based Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
It stimulates animals mentally and physically. They're taught to be cooperative during medical checkups and procedures, making potentially risky sedation unnecessary. And they develop better relationships with their keepers.
Zoo visitors also benefit. In Cincinnati, for example, they can get up close to animals — such as a screaming hairy armadillo and bat-eared fox — that have been trained to be at ease around people. What's more, visitors can watch as animals demonstrate, on cue, a variety of natural behaviors.
All of that helps visitors forge a connection with zoo animals, Oehler said, and often inspires people to take action to protect those creatures' counterparts in the wild.
A cougar that hides in a corner of its enclosure and sleeps isn't very inspiring. That's what Joseph and Tecumseh did when Ferguson and Watkins first introduced them to an outdoor display.
After 20 minutes on display, the cougars were rewarded with a favorite food, such as quail or rabbit. Gradually, the trainers kept the cats out longer.
Food is a great motivator, and not just for cougars. It's the positive reinforcement that entices a polar bear to jump into water on cue, an awake gorilla to hold still for a heart exam, or a hawk to fly across a stage.
Repetition and patience are keys. To get Joseph to move to a specific place in his exhibit, Ferguson stood on that spot and called him. He complied because he knew he'd get a snack.
In time, Ferguson and Watkins introduced another cue. Each trainer was wired with a buzzer that sounded at the moment they called a cat. Gradually, the trainer eased out of the picture, so the cat responded only to the buzzer.
Now, during twice-daily zoo keeper encounters at the Night Hunters exhibit, a keeper pushes a button. A buzzer sounds. Visitors see a cougar run through the exhibit and get a reward. The cats also have been trained to show off their leaping ability and stand against the glass separating them from visitors.
Her success with the cougars landed Ferguson the newly created curator's job last October. She oversees 200 animals used in education programs on and off zoo grounds.
They include Herman, a 450-pound miniature cow, who once disliked walks around the park so much that he would head-butt Children's Zoo keeper Eunice Frahm.
Ferguson's suggestions included applying a slight but continuous pressure on Herman's halter and rewarding him every two minutes. He's doing much better.
Some circuses, Ferguson said, train animals through submission. To get an animal to lie down, for example, "they use ropes and tie the animal, and they force it down, then reward it until it gets the idea."
Neither Ferguson nor the zoo operates that way.
The zoo's male Bactrian camel, Humphrey, was a bully who would run into, spit on, and kick his keepers when they entered his enclosure. Ferguson began working with him and his keepers three months ago.
Keepers, like the animals, had to learn to trust Ferguson.
Now, a keeper can say "station," and Humphrey goes to a certain spot in his yard. He waits there until the keeper is ready to leave, then gets treats.
As for Cinder the pig, teaching him to sit was a cinch. Ferguson said it's like working with a dog.
"The biggest mistake people make," she said, "is they look at a standing dog and they tell it to sit."
Ferguson does this: She holds a morsel over Cinder's head, causing the pig to lean back naturally into a sitting position. Once he's there, she says "sit."
Eventually, she introduces a hand signal - a pointed finger - and Cinder learns to associate that with sitting.
It's all reinforced, of course, with a food pellet the piglet loves.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com