Jumping through hoops at the Cincinnati Zoo

The following was published in The Brookville Democrat newspaper in January 2012.

By Melanie Padgett Powers, Special Contributor

How do you make a chicken jump through a hoop? If that sounds like the beginning of a corny joke, it’s not. It’s something Eunice Frahm had to ponder when she was tasked with creating a new show for children at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Frahm, a 2002 Franklin County High School graduate, is a children’s zoo trainer and keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo. She grew up in New Trenton, the daughter of Robert and Earlene Frahm.

The zoo hired Frahm about a year ago to create a new children’s show using barnyard animals. She built the stage, planned the entire show and trained the animals. The show debuted last summer, running twice a day five to seven days a week in the summer and on weekends during the fall. The show will start back up in the spring.

Frahm trains animals using “operant conditioning,” which offers rewards to modify existing behavior. Frahm reinforces the behavior she wants and ignores the behavior she doesn’t.

Rewards for goats? Food, period. For dogs? A toy, attention or playing with her owner. For chickens? Mealworms. To train the chickens, who often peck at the ground, Frahm taught them to peck at a pole to receive mealworms. She then used the pole to get the chickens to learn how to ring a bell and jump through a hoop, all actions rewarded with mealworms.

“You can train anything; you just have to know what tells them ‘good job,’” Frahm said. “A chicken that can jump through hoops is pretty adorable.”

Frahm grew up with a dog and cats and knew she wanted to work with animals in some way. She graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a degree in biology. She interned at the Dolphin Conservation Center in Florida, which was also her first job after college for two years. That’s where she learned how to train animals.

“That’s where I really fell in love with animal behaviors,” she said. “Once an animal understands training…it’s cool to see the light bulb going off.”

Frahm had always had an interest in cats; she had worked with cats at the Cincinnati Zoo as a summer employee. So, she later accepted at job at the Downtown Aquarium in Houston, where she worked in a show with white tigers, servals (an African cat), parrots and sloths.

But then the Cincinnati Zoo came calling, with an offer to create a new children’s show with farm animals: cows, goats, chickens.

“I never saw myself working with barnyard animals, but it was a cool opportunity to start a show from scratch,” she said. “It was a gamble for me to leave dolphins and cats to go to barnyard animals. But, as long as I’m working with animals, I’m happy.”

Frahm doesn’t see any downsides to her job, but she does caution other animal lovers that being a zoo trainer and keeper is not glamorous. The animals always need someone to take care of them and clean up after them, even if it’s pouring rain or freezing outside.

Frahm works in all weather conditions, and added, “They’ve got to eat on Christmas Day, too. I always work weekends and a lot of nights.”

In the evening, when Frahm heads home, is she welcomed by a house full of pets? “I have one cat, and I haven’t trained her to do a thing,” she said.

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