One of Pittsburgh Zoo's most popular animals makes a comeback

Animal pair are being trained to adapt to humans before debut

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium will be celebrating Independence Day with a hoofed interpretation of the Stars and Stripes.

After a six-year absence, zebras will return to the African Savanna exhibit July 4. The zoo has acquired two 1-year-old Grant’s zebras, a male and a female, from a breeder in northeastern Pennsylvania. As the animals prepare for their public debut, they are being trained to adapt to human exposure. Their keepers are currently receiving instruction from Jesse Peters, a coach certified in the Parelli Natural Horsemanship taming method.

While the Parelli technique was originally conceived for horse-training, its philosophy of developing a relationship between animal and keeper can be applied to any species, said Barbara Baker, zoo president and CEO.

“Jesse teaches keepers to see from the animal’s point of view,” she explained.

Standing at the side of a pen with the two zebras and two keepers by their side, Mr. Peters conducted his three-hour lesson Tuesday with an eye to both human and animal.

Watching as one zebra resisted a keeper’s grasp, he instructed, “Hold the intention.” With a gentle grip of the zebra’s nose, the keeper successfully coaxed the animal backward, while Mr. Peters guided them with words of encouragement.

The tall, cowboy-attired trainer has been teaching the Parelli method to Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium staff for six years.

The employees at the training session said the program has changed the way they approach their engagement not only with animals, but also with one another.

“We all have somebody who we don’t love or understand,” animal keeper Diane Hagey said with a smile. “These lessons have been huge in helping us deal with co-workers.”

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium handlers Kathy Suthard and Diane Hagey follow the lead of the zoo's two new zebras during their familiarization session Tuesday. (Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)

The zoo’s marketing communications manager, Laura Gething, said she was struck by how rooted Parelli is in human psychology.

While she does not work directly with animals, Ms. Gething has been attending the classes to gain insight on personal interactions and how miscommunication manifests in the workplace.

“When we’re gauging our own actions, we’re judging ourselves on our intention,” she recounted one lesson from Mr. Peters. “But when we’re gauging other people’s actions, we judge them on their behavior, because their intention may not be clear to us.” The Parelli method helps employees avoid conflicts created by these gaps in understanding.

Because of their close relation to horses, the zebras are among the best candidates for the training. They will be moved to the African Savanna exhibit building today, giving them time to adjust to the new environment before they are introduced to the public. They will share an expanded space with the Masai giraffes, Mel and Sox.

Ms. Baker said she is looking forward to the exhibit because zebras were one of the zoo’s most popular animals before their departure in 2008.

“People were asking me, ‘where’s the zebras?’ ” she recalled.

Yanan Wang: or 412-263-1949.

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