A Balanced Life for Our Favorite Animals

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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 job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

laura_w1Anyone who has studied personal wellness (or has been to a decent yoga class) knows that we need to look after our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs to achieve a complete and balanced life. As it turns out, animals follow a similar pattern of needs. The interns met with Dr. Lance Miller, Ph.D., a scientist for the Behavior Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. He studies animal welfare at the Zoo and Safari Park, not only to support their physical needs, but also their mental/emotional health. During our visit with Dr. Miller, we were able to observe two different Safari Park exhibits and discuss the science of animal wellness. Make no mistake, this is a science. Dr. Miller and his colleagues examine animal wellness with an emphasis on proving their research with concrete evidence. In this way, Dr. Miller hopes to improve the health of the minds and bodies of our favorite Zoo and Safari Park attractions.

Dr. Miller took us to one of the two elephant exhibits, where he explained that the majority of elephants in zoos are actually overweight from lack of exercise and poor diet – just as many Americans do. However, as we looked around at the floppy-eared individuals, we saw that these elephants appeared healthy and active. Dr. Miller attributes this to the skills of the Zookeepers, who have trained the elephants extraordinarily well. In addition to having a well-balanced diet, these elephants actually have exercise routines. Imagine these Zookeepers as a set of personal trainers for clients weighing thousands of pounds!

Of course, then it started to rain and we pressed on through the downpour to the lion exhibit. There, under the shelter of an overhang, we discussed the slightly more complicated task of satisfying the mental needs of the Safari Park’s residents. Dr. Miller pointed out gourds that the female lions use as toys and brush for the male lions to scent-mark. He also surprised us all by telling us about an experiment with tigers and perfume, of all things. Apparently, animals with a strong sense of smell (like lions and tigers) react to different smells through changes in behavior. Who would have thought that a tiger would enjoy one brand of perfume over another? It’s true. Researchers have identified six specific compounds – nicknamed “tiger scent” – found in some popular perfumes that actually increase diversity of behavior in tigers. What this means is that the tigers have been observed to be more active within their environment when the scent is present, rather than just sitting around. The lions’ toys and this tiger scent are just two of many projects Dr. Miller and other researchers are using to stimulate animals and keep them interested in their environments.

Dr. Miller made it clear that animals, especially higher-order mammals such as elephants and lions, are even more similar to humans than we thought. These beautiful, powerful creatures have physical and emotional needs for a healthy lifestyle, just like us. Satisfying these needs and keeping these animals active within their surroundings is the main goal of the Zoo. Plus, being able to observe healthy, happy, and engaged animals helps to create a better experience for visitors like you! The next time you make a trip to the Zoo or Safari Park, try to pick out details of an animal exhibit that Zoo staff has placed there for the benefit of the animals: an unusual toy, a fresh arrangement of foliage to explore, or even a new scent for the animals to investigate. (Bonus points if you can get that last one.)

Laura, Real World Team
Week One, Fall Session 2013