OAKLAND -- Chelsea Williams may be young, but she knows how to touch an old heart.
The 30-year-old keeper at the Oakland Zoo enjoys training elderly animals using a rewards system. When tortoises, baboons and other animals she works with regularly know they'll get snacks, they are more apt to participate in physical exams and other caretaking.
"You can take so much stress off them through positive reinforcement training," she said.
Williams, a Salinas native who lives near Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, is a young whippersnapper compared to the zoo's giant tortoises from Aldabra, an island in the Indian Ocean. O.J., the oldest male tortoise, is at least 120 years old and doesn't mind going head-to-head with another tortoise, Ralph, who is in his 80s.
"O.J. is a bit more fiery," Williams said, noting that she loves it that he slowly ambles over to greet her.
"These guys are affectionate. Whenever they are coming toward you they want to be with you. That's special."
Williams, who started working at the zoo three years ago, has trained the tortoises to allow staff to draw blood and trim their nails without a fight, a feat her boss appreciates.
"Tortoises require a ton of patience because they are so slow-moving," said Margaret Rousser, a zoo manager. "Being able to do that with their cooperation is really key."
Williams also enjoys working with the Hamadryad baboons, who in February welcomed a new elderly member to
Daisy, a baboon in her 30s -- they typically live into their 40s -- had to find favor with younger females in her male-dominated group. Even though her arthritis threatened to make her vulnerable, her outgoing personality helped her achieve the right balance of independence and submissiveness.
"She just took to him immediately," she said of Daisy's new male, Gordon. "It was really sweet."
Williams has used training to get the African baboons, who are not usually keen on being around humans, to allow keepers to listen to their heartbeats. Getting animals to help themselves is the most rewarding part of her job, she said.
"There is so much room to improve their lives," she said.