Toys for Tigers

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

Today, interns learned about animal enrichment and made toys for the animals at the San Diego Zoo. The seven of us could not wait for the experience to start!

We were introduced to the fabulous Yvette Kemp, a senior hospital keeper at the Zoo with a passion for animal enrichment. Enrichment is anything that enhances an animal’s physical and mental well-being. It can be as simple as a change of scenery in an exhibit or as complex as animal training. For example, bringing snow to the polar bears’ exhibit is a form of enrichment. Not only does it bring out the bears’ natural behaviors, but it also is different and exciting for them!

If you want to make a difference for the animals at the San Diego Zoo, it can be as easy as donating toys! There is an Animal Care Wish List where animal lovers around the world can donate money to provide enrichment for the animals. Donations could help the orangutans get nontoxic paint with which to paint a masterpiece or help the tigers try their claws out on a new scratching post.

We learned from Ms. Kemp that keepers also train animals for various procedures as a form of enrichment. An animal can be taught to stand on a scale to be weighed, asked to present body parts to be inspected, or even trained to turn to one side or open their mouth to accept medications! She explained that these simple lessons can extend the life of an animal in a managed-care facility, both by enriching their daily life and allowing the keepers to keep tabs on the animal’s health. A longer life span, in turn, may help conserve the species if the animal is able to produce more offspring. More babies at the Zoo can help increase genetic variability within zoo populations. This means less chance of extinction and more chances for research and eventual re-release back into the animal’s natural habitat.

We went with Ms. Kemp to the enrichment shed, a back area where volunteers make and store enrichment. Ms. Kemp gave us some paint and a cardboard box and put us to work! We had a blast as we designed boxes with the animals in mind. We transformed boring brown boxes into bright, new items of interest for our furry friends. The box could be something new to look at for an animal, something to chew on, or even something to be made into a temporary home. Every animal has their own way of interacting with enrichment.

And the best part of the day: learning that the enrichment we were making was designed with the environment in mind. The cardboard boxes came from food and merchandise deliveries on grounds. The shed also contained burlap sacks that came from local coffee shops. We learned that local fire departments donate their old hoses to be made into various enrichment items, such as hammocks and food puzzles. Even the cardboard tubes once held crickets. It’s quite obvious that the San Diego Zoo, being a conservation organization, sure knows how to reuse their resources!

Our day with Ms. Kemp was a blast, to say the least! We observed that enrichment is very valuable because it keeps the animals entertained and occupied. I hope that our beautiful painted boxes can relay a message to the animals: we love them, want them to be happy and also want them to have a little bit of fun. More importantly, we want to preserve them for future generations.

Rachel, Conservation Team
Week three, Winter Session 2012