Keepers do have an impressive arsenal of scents on hand for the animals in their care. Various perfumes, essential oils, spices, and even synthetic urine from other species are used from time to time to give our Zoo animals something different to experience, investigate, or delight in. The big cats and pandas roll around in the scent, seemingly trying to spread it all over their body. But the polar bears’ reaction is different: they give the new smell a good sniff and then go on with whatever activity they were doing—no big deal! So instead, Matt or his fellow keepers make a scent trail that leads the bear to a big payoff—an extra-special food treat or new toy. The bear follows the smell to the prize!
There is one type of scent enrichment that DOES get more of a reaction from our polar bears: camel and llama hair. Keepers collect the shed hair and place it in small piles for the bears, who roll around in it with great gusto!
Debbie Andreen is an editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Gao Gao: Class Clown.