What’s that Smell?

An Indochinese sika deer engages a scented spool.

Ever passed an animal exhibit at a zoo and thought, “Wow. That smells!”? Me too.

For the past few weeks it has been my job to sit in front of deer, antelope, and wild horse off-exhibit enclosures at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and watch the animals react to enrichment items I’ve placed there (see previous post, Enrichment Study: Who Likes What?). Every once in awhile I get a whiff of the animals’ natural scent. I’ve tried putting perfume on myself—even right under my nose—but that didn’t work. People just didn’t sit next to me anymore because I was “too strong” (and it wasn’t because of my bulging muscles). So I had to come up with a better idea.

I thought, “What do people spray perfume on? Why, what smells, of course!” So, naturally, I figured it would be a good idea to spray the enclosures. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out, but I had seen and been told about studies that other people were doing on scents. Apparently the animals have shown a particular interest in “Obsession” by Calvin Klein. They have good taste. So I tried it.

I put perfume on a small green spool and put it in each one of the 17 off-exhibit enclosures I am studying. I was sure that I would get some kind of response from the horses, but I was most interested in the reactions of the deer. The first Indochinese sika deer that I tried it with enjoyed it! This was the first real reaction to anything I had given them (things like other scents, balls, and big brushes). The male was the first to go over. He sniffed it and then knocked the spool down. The most interesting part is that he wouldn’t let the female sniff it—or get anywhere near it. He chased her, seemingly “interested” in her. Apparently perfume is good for animals as well as humans.

A Przewalski's wild horse investigates the new scent.

After this success (I was starting to get excited!), I moved on to the Mandarin sika deer. There are four deer in this enclosure, and they were only interested for a minute. A little less exciting. But the Malayan sambar deer liked it: I barely made it out of the pen before the hand-raised ones and some of their friends were rolling the spool around and rubbing against it. The Przewalski’s wild horses and the Somali wild asses loved it as well. They played with the scented spool for nearly the entire 30 minutes.

An unexpected lover of the Obsession scent was the nyala: he spent the entire 30 minutes sniffing, licking, biting, rolling, pushing, rubbing, and kicking the spool.

It was wonderful to see the deer react (even slightly) to the enrichment. I was so pleased with my experiment that I decided to try it on myself just before my boyfriend came to visit.

His reaction? Clueless. :)

Cassidy Horn is a student at Stanford University and a summer intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.