Big Cat Preferences

Hmmm. Sweet or salty?

Do you have a sweet tooth, or do you prefer treats like pretzels? Just as people have individual preferences, so do animals. Here at the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research we are interested in determining individual preferences for some of our animals. Specifically, we are involved in a study examining enrichment preferences for our larger species of felids (lions, tigers, and cheetahs).

Why is this important? Providing environmental enrichment for animals helps keep them both physically and psychologically healthy by promoting species-appropriate behavior and providing the animals some control within their environment. Through assessment of enrichment preferences, we can determine not only what the animals prefer, but also how those enrichment items affect their behavior. Currently, we have eight different objects (for example, gourds and Boomer Balls®) and eight different scents (for example, mint and lavender) that we are assessing to figure out individual and species differences. This will allow us to provide the highest quality of care for the felids at both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park by providing preferred items to animals and also items that promote species-typical behavior.

A young cheetah with a Boomer ball.

The assessment preferences involve pairing up the different items (for example, Boomer Ball versus a cardboard box) and looking at different measures such as time until they interact with each object and total duration of time each animal interacted with both objects. Over time, with enough trials we will be able to determine preferences for each of the cats in the collection. As of now, thanks to the hard work of our dedicated animal care staff, we have successfully completed all of the enrichment assessment trials with our lions and are working to finish the rest of the trials with the tigers and cheetahs. After we have completed the trials, I will update everyone with some of the preferences we are observing with our wonderful felid collection.

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Read more about enrichment in the post Enrichment: Fun for Everyone.

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