The rotation of our two jaguars has been the cause for adjustment for both human and cat along Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. During the very first days that some of our regular visitors ambled down the path to find Nindiri on exhibit where they were accustomed to seeing Orson for over the past 10 years, some came to me concerned that something bad had happened to the elderly Orson. Although I was able to reassure them that Orson was fine enjoying the modern digs up at Elephant Odyssey (see post Zoo Legend Finds New Home), I too noticed one thing missing: Orson’s frequent roar, which could be heard up and down the canyon as he declared Big Cat Trail his domain.
Nindiri seemed to take the change much more in stride. Before the Elephant Odyssey project was completed, Nindiri spent several months “sharing” the exhibit on Big Cat Trail with Orson on a rotating basis. She seemed very confident entering the exhibit; apparently she remembered her time here. The first thing she did was go examine all of the areas Orson regularly scent marked, one enriching experience we expected with this change.
At over 17 years old, Orson was the elder statesman of Big Cat Trail. In contrast, at a spry 2½ years old, Nindiri arrives as the youngest cat in the area. Her youthfulness shows with her exhibiting more activity and spunk throughout the day. Despite being half Orson’s weight, she broke a perch in her habitat the very first day exploring. More recently I observed her trying to get at one of the sprinkler heads that hang from the roof. She will also take time to play with her rabbit carcass in the pools, while Orson would take the more “mature” path and get down to eating his rabbit immediately. These kinds of reactions are the type of enriching behavior we hope that the exhibit rotation will bring for both of our jaguars.
Many people assume that we must tranquilize or sedate our large carnivores to transfer them, but this is not necessarily true. Both of the jaguars were trained to enter their transport crates on their own accord through positive reinforcement, meaning that they received a treat for entering their crate and being calm. In fact, I only had to do three such “sessions” with Orson before he was ready for his move to Elephant Odyssey. On the day of the move I asked him into his crate, gave him a treat, and closed and secured the door behind him as he calmly waited for more food. Although any move of a potentially dangerous animal is a serious matter, the ease with which we were able to move our jaguars allows us the possibility of making changes like this that should enhance both of their lives.
On your next visit to the Zoo, make sure to visit both of our jaguar habitats. You may be surprised by who is where and what they will be doing with the increased enrichment in their lives.
Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.