At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we are always trying to make sure that our animals are offered the best care possible. Through the years I have been fortunate to work in different areas and with several different animals. Though each animal is different and may need different types of care, one thing is always constant at the Zoo and Safari Park: enrichment.
When you come to the Zoo or Safari Park, you may see animals playing with something that looks like a toy, digging under a log, or even rolling in mulch. What may look like the animal just playing is actually a skill or behavior that the animals may naturally exhibit. For keepers, one of the fun parts of the job is getting to be creative with enrichment. Where can they hide the food? What can they use to cover a smell or scent mark? What can the animal maneuver and break apart?
Zoos and other managed-care facilities use enrichment to ensure that their animals stay active and engaged. When animals are in the wild, they are constantly challenged to obtain food and water, stay safe, and watch out for the competition. We may try to challenge our animals in every category except for water, of course. For many animals that have predatory instincts, hiding food around their enclosure helps them “exercise” their sense of smell and problem-solving skills. Many predators have calculating minds that are challenged on a daily basis in the wild, so we may have meatball hunts or puzzle feeders where the animal has to move a feeder around to get the food out.
Animals that may not hunt but do struggle to find food out in the wild are also given puzzle feeders and sometimes other challenges. For example: we may take a burlap sack, fill it with hay, bury treats in there, and spray perfume on the sack to hide the scent of the food. This gives the animals something safe to take apart and play with as they also problem solve to find their food.
One of our favorite enrichment items to use is perfume! We use it with many of our mammals for many reasons. Carnivores like to roll in something smelly so they can cover up their smell to sneak up on prey. For wolves, this behavior is also a way to communicate to the rest of their pack that they may have found a carcass that they can feed on. Something similar in purpose is hair from other animals, especially camels, for animals that need to hide a newborn from predators. Every year when the camels begin shedding their winter coats, we begin giving the shed to our large cats. They usually roll around in it, covering themselves with a new scent; for our guests visiting that day, it allows them to get some awesome photos of our animals being animals.
Keepers are given the chance to put items on a wish list that is then posted on the San Diego Zoo’s website. Our guests, members, and patrons from around the world are able to donate toward a particular enrichment item for any animal, if they wish. We were able to fund the construction of an artificial tree for one of our panda enclosures this way, and many of our animals have benefited through our Animal Care Wish List.
We hope everyone has a great holiday season. Stop by to check out our animals soon, and see if you can tell what type of enrichment they may have that day!
Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Long Time, No See Bears.