Yellow, spotted and about 12 inches long, the gecko scampered around until Camden McMillian, a Franklin & Marshall College senior, set the eyelet of a skewer before him. After a few hopeful moments, the little lizard approached the target and earned his reward – a pinhead cricket.
“I’m using positive reinforcement training on geckos in order to target-train them using a skewer,” said the animal behavior major and environmental studies minor. “I’m teaching them to go to the target whenever I present it to them, and, hopefully, they stay until released.”
The summer Hackman Scholar works with Associate Professor of Psychology Meredith Bashaw, who studies exotic animal welfare. Over the last few years, Bashaw has focused her research on human-animal relationships and the welfare of captive reptiles.
“The literature on animal welfare suggests that animals with more control over their situations are less likely to be stressed,” Bashaw said. “They recover from stress more easily, and they may be happier, assuming happiness is something geckos can feel.”
Among other places, her research results get presented to zoos that commonly offer education programs allowing adults and children to touch snakes and lizards.
“We’re trying to come up with ways they can do that will be less stressful for the lizard,” Bashaw said. “There’s good data that having one-on-one contact with an animal makes people more likely to care about that animal and conserve wildlife.”
McMillian works with the male geckos, one at a time, in the reptile area of the campus vivarium, in a room lit only by red lamps so she can conduct her Pavlovian-type experiments with these nocturnal lizards while they are awake.
“I have a little light, and I’ve taught them that when the light goes on they get food – a cricket – as a reinforcer. It makes the training process a little easier,” she said. “they know they’ve done well when I flash the light at them.”
The experiment’s ultimate purpose is to allow the geckos to determine whether or not they want to be handled by people, Bashaw said.
“Most animals are naturally scared of people. Trying to construct that human-animal relationship in a way that lets them have some authority should be good,” the professor said, while referring to a previous Hackman project that involves her research. “When we trained Geckos with getting picked up as a reinforcer, some were very excited and wanted to be picked up, and others did not. If we can come up with a behavioral diagnosis of the kind of animals that like to be handled, then we can use that diagnosis to pick the right animals for the zoo education programs.”
McMillian, who is considering post-graduate studies for a career in either animal welfare in zoos or wildlife management in parks, said most of the geckos have been learning quickly.
“Hopefully, zoos will be able to implement this type of programing so that their lizards and snakes will have more choice,” she said. “Being able to choose when they go out and how long they go out, things like that.”