“Target”, Julie Johnson calls as she taps the red and white “candy” striped stick until the alligator touches it and receives the long-awaited reward. Kari Ysland keeps a watchful eye on the other alligators as she cleans the opposite side of the tank. Julie and Kari are just one husbandry team at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, yet their primary responsibility is one that most people, male or female, would fear. These women specialize in alligator care, as well as target training them.
“The fear is always there when we are target training,” says Julie, “you just have to understand them and have patience.” During weekly feedings and periodic cleanings, Julie and Kari train the alligators. Target training is a form of behavior conditioning with the ultimate goal of getting the alligators to come out of the water on command for vet visits; making it less stressful on the animals and safer for the staff.
When training began two years ago, the alligators were feisty, to say the least. “It was amazing the change we saw in just two weeks of starting the training, their behavior went from aggressive to calm immediately.” Currently the alligators are not yet coming fully out of the water on command, but Julie and Kari remain committed to use less restraint while examining the animals.
Working with alligators wasn’t always the dream job for Julie and Kari. “When I started at the Aquarium I wasn’t a huge fan of reptiles at all,” says Julie. Now they are both extremely passionate about working with the alligators, and ensuring safety and health. In the future, Julie and Kari both hope to further their careers in similar areas. Kari is focused on wildlife rehabilitation, while Julie’s vision is conducting behavior research in the wild.