Big Cat Preferences, Part 2

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A lioness enjoys a pumpkin she "hunted" at Lion Camp.

Thanks to our wonderful and dedicated animal care team that takes care of the lions in our collection, the preference trials for the three lions at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Lion Camp have been completed (see Big Cat Preferences). After examining the time spent with the different objects, and the behaviors elicited by the objects, the information we are gathering is very interesting. First of all, while lions are spending some time with the natural scents (for example, warthog feces), the females spent the most time with objects that could be “hunted” (for example, gourds). By contrast, the male lion  almost always scent marks on browse clippings such as acacia. Thinking about the natural history of these animals, the preferences we are observing relate to the behavior of lions in the wild.

In a pride of lions, the females are the hunters, and providing gourds or other objects that can be “hunted” allows the animals to engage in this behavior. Have you ever seen a dog roll in droppings from another animal? Lions roll in feces to hide their scent from prey species, and this is exactly what we are seeing with some of the different scents, including warthog feces, during the preference tests. In addition, male lions mark their territory, and by providing fresh browse we are also providing this opportunity to scent mark.

Moreover, 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 hope to determine not only what the animals prefer, but also which enrichment elicits behavior similar to that observed in the wild. This, in turn, allows the animals to engage in behaviors they are motivated to perform, ensuring we are providing the highest quality of care for animals within the collection.

On your next visit to the Safari Park, you might notice some new cameras at Lion Camp. The next phase of this project will be to examine how different enrichment preferences affect behavior over 24 hours. The cameras that have been installed allow us to examine behavior, even during the evening, to continue to learn more about these complex and amazing animals.

Until next year, happy holidays everyone!

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.