Catfish Training Story

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Here's the Training story of Giant Thai Catfish...

The Giant Thai catfish is a species of freshwater fish in the shark catfish family. These fish can be found in areas of Southeast Asia.  At Disney’s Animal Kingdom® you can find one of these beautiful fish in the waterways around the Tree of Life.

Many people may not believe that you can train a fish; however, we have found that it is possible with consistency and patience. The giant Thai catfish training program began in 2007 when a need to drain the exhibit pool for maintenance arose. At the time, the plan for transporting the fish was to use a net. This traditional method for moving fish could be difficult and dangerous due to the landscape of the exhibit and the size of the fish.  The animal care team was challenged with creating a safe, low stress method to transport the giant fish. After determining a training plan and some initial trial-and-error involving setup, the plan was implemented.  The final goal of the training plan was to have the catfish voluntarily swim into a net-stretcher draped in the water, and allow himself to be lifted out of the water. Once the catfish had swum in the net, this gave us an opportunity to weigh, administer medical treatment if needed, or transport to another pool. All of these procedures would allow staff to take great care of the catfish.

Training occurred six days a week at the designated feeding time. Food was the primary reinforcement for the training process which involved the repetition of small steps to achieve our final behavioral goal. The pace of training was determined by the participation of the fish. Once the staff felt he was consistently performing the current training step, they would move on to the next goal. The animal care staff started by hand feeding and then moved to swimming through a submerged PVC square. One square became two and then mesh was added to the sides between the two squares to assimilate the net-stretcher. Desensitization to tactile sensation was also a goal in the training. Today, with multiple animal care staff in the water, the catfish will swim into the net-stretcher voluntarily and allow the netting to be closed around his body.

The training program challenges the idea that there are limited options for fish husbandry. By developing a training program, we were able to further understand the feeding habits of a little known species. Through the current program, it is quite apparent the catfish can be highly motivated to participate in training sessions. Since starting the training, steps have been taken to train other fish in the collection. Gar, channel catfish, and pacu now have a training program in place.

Since training began, keepers noticed the catfish showing an increase in overall daily activity. The catfish was observed swimming around the entire pool rather than staying under cover and out of view. The increased activity and training sessions allow many more opportunities for our guests to view this fascinating fish.