Animal AmbassadorsMeet Olivia

August 18, 2015

Olivia is a juvenile screaming hairy armadillo that was born right here at the Virginia Zoo. She was born on August 18, 2014 to parents Savannah and Chaco. Screaming hairy armadillos are found in western Bolivia and in northwestern provinces of Argentina in the Monte Desert. They got their name from the screeching alarm call that they make when frightened to ward off predators. They also have hair along their backs and bellies.

The word armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one” and it refers to the bony plates that cover the back, head, legs and tails of most of these odd looking creatures. Like human fingerprints every armadillo has a unique head plate pattern.

At 6 months old Olivia began her training to become an education animal ambassador at the zoo. Each day she was handled and introduced to her new role as an ambassador animal. Olivia quickly began showing us that she was very food motivated and we decided to try out some positive reinforcement training with her. Olivia was conditioned to a clicker for training by giving her a piece of food (her diet consists of fruits and vegetables as well as meal worms) and clicking the clicker at the same time. She soon learned that each time she heard a click food appeared.

oliviaOnce Olivia learned what the click was I started target training her using a ping pong ball on the end of a wooden dowel. Because armadillos have poor eyesight and rely mostly on smell and hearing I tapped the target on the ground in front of her so that she could hear it as well as feel the vibrations to know where it was. Once Olivia came close to the target I clicked my clicker and then gave her a reward. By taking small steps and clicking her each time she was closer or even touching the target with her nose Olivia learned that touching the target meant she would get a reward.

Training provides both mental stimulation as well as physical exercise for Olivia. Another way that she gets exercise is by running around in an exercise ball and even on an exercise wheel in her enclosure. We can often hear her running on her wheel while working in our program animal building.

Now at almost a year old she is coming out for special events at the zoo and showing off her training to the kids in our summer safari camp. She knows how to target like a pro and we are starting to train some new behaviors including going through a tunnel.

Now that Olivia has completed her training to be an ambassador animal we are hoping her little brother Oliver will be following in her footsteps. Oliver was born in May of this year and has started his conditioning to be a program animal just like his big sister. He’s almost full grown and will be moving over to the program animal building soon to continue his daily training.

Twelve of 20 armadillo species are currently listed as vulnerable, endangered or near threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species. By providing up close interactions with Oliver and Olivia we are hoping to inspire conservation action in those that meet them.

Stephanie Peters, Program Animal Coordinator