San Diego Zoo Gives Enrichment Wreaths to Meerkats

Meerkat WreathA meerkat sits in the middle of a wreath inside its enclosure this morning at the San Diego Zoo. The wreath was one of four made by animal care staff, crafted from lavender star plants grown at the Zoo and accented with a bow created from a part of a palm tree. The other wreaths sported red hibiscus flowers. All were “trimmed” with mealworms, which is part of the meerkats’ usual diet.

The wreath enrichment was created to encourage the six meerkats’ natural behavior to dig, forage and explore. Meerkats live in underground burrows in large groups called a mob. Meerkats have long claws to help them dig their burrows and to uncover food. They have a special membrane that covers the eye to protect it from dirt and rocks while they burrow. They also have ears that can close to keep out soil when digging.

There are wreaths and lights decorating the entire San Diego Zoo during the annual Jungle Bells celebration, presented by California Coast Credit Union. The holiday event runs now through Jan. 4, 2015, with the exception of Dec. 24, and is free with paid admission or membership to the San Diego Zoo. Visit www.sandiegozoo.org/junglebells for a schedule of other activities and more information about Jungle Bells.

Photo taken on Dec.15, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.


Scents for Polar Bears

Kalluk thinks snow is the PERFECT enrichment for polar bears!

Kalluk thinks snow is the PERFECT enrichment for polar bears!

Lions and tigers love perfume and giant pandas enjoy the smell of cinnamon, but do the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears get a kick out of scent enrichment, too? Keeper Matt Price explained to me that although our Arctic bruins have impressive sniffers, they don’t go all crazy rubbing around in smelly things like some critters do!

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.


An Enriched Elephant Herd

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

As chronicled in my last post, Tracking Safari Park Elephants, both keepers and researchers consistently strive to improve the welfare of our elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. One such way we can enhance welfare is through the use of enrichment. Enrichment provides our elephants with opportunities to engage in species-appropriate behaviors. Making changes to their social groupings, along with providing more variety in the types and amounts of browse food items given, has proved extremely beneficial. The separation and reuniting of individuals from yard to yard encourages heightened levels of social behavior. Access to bodies of water can encourage everything from taking a simple drink to providing a good place to cool off, and is occasionally a great venue for a full-on pool party!

Vus'Musi and Msholo spar.

Vus’musi and Msholo spar.

Our overarching aim is to maintain a high diversity of positive naturalistic behaviors: we want our elephants to be elephants, and it takes a lot of work to ensure they receive those opportunities. Every morning, keepers go over the plan for the day, and that plan always involves some type of enrichment. One of my personal favorites is when a fresh mud bog is made in the west yard, a task that requires much skill to produce the perfect consistency of mud. The elephants then get to spend the day wallowing, playing, and cooling off in it. Feeder puzzles are another fun device. Some are round while some are rectangular, and all are filled with alfalfa pellets or fresh hay. To get to the food product inside, the elephants have to kick, push, and use their heads (literally and figuratively!), all of which provides them with both mental and physical stimulation while satisfying their appetite.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Because enrichment is deployed every day, creative minds have to band together to keep the environment as unpredictable as possible. One recent example of this is the variety of produce that is now being introduced (such as romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and celery) to go along with the alfalfa pellets that the elephants receive. Another example is the frequent change in placement of common enrichment products. The Boomer Ball that was previously in the east yard may show up the next day in the pool of the west yard. Even celebrating the birthday of an elephant switches up the herd’s diet and overall schedule, and because it doesn’t happen every day, it is also a very enriching event.

There are many ways to keep the elephants both mentally and physically engaged with their environment, but all require teamwork, scattered scheduling, and creative minds. The next time you’re watching Elephant Cam or visiting our African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, keep an eye out for any interesting behaviors or interactions resulting from our enrichment efforts. Maybe M’sholo and Vus’musi will be playing in the pool. Perhaps Kami will be kicking around a feeder puzzle, or Swazi will munch on some alfalfa hay. Whichever behaviors you observe, you’ll be witnessing the results of our efforts to ensure that our herd is fully enriched!

Charlotte Hacker is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Orangutans: Why the Burlap?

A young Cinta enjoyed burlap, too!

A young Cinta enjoyed burlap, too!

Satu sits slightly down with a piece of burlap over his head; Indah lies in a hammock completely covered by burlap, and Karen has a burlap bag clutched in her foot as she does somersaults in front of the glass. What’s up with the burlap? Burlap is one of the enrichment items we give the orangutans on exhibit. If you have spent anytime at the San Diego Zoo, you probably have heard of enrichment. Enrichment basically refers to anything given to the animals that will increase their activity both physically and mentally.

When animals are on exhibit, we are limited to items that are natural in appearance, and with orangutans, we are limited further to items that are “orangutan proof.” Orangutans are intelligent, strong, and creative animals. Great care has to be given so that individuals cannot hurt themselves, destroy the items, or, more likely, use the item as a tool for mischief.

In addition to the burlap, pinecones, gourds, bamboo, browse, and palm fronds are enrichment items we commonly use on exhibit. We try to give them items that will encourage natural behaviors. Orangutans are arboreal mammals from the rain forest. They use branches and large fronds to protect themselves from the rain and sun. We give them burlap, browse, and palm fronds to mimic this behavior. We put treats and smears in and on the pinecones, gourds, and bamboo to encourage foraging behaviors and tool use. We have a simulated termite mound in the exhibit, which, of course, does not contain ants or termites but different sauces. It is not so important what is in the termite mound but that they use tools to extract what they want out of it.

Tool use is a learned behavior passed from mother to offspring. We saw Indah actively teaching Cinta to use the termite mound, and it will be great to see her do the same with her newest baby, Aisha. Different groups have different tool use methods, and even individuals have a preference when it comes to extracting the enrichment. When we give bamboo cups with gelatin inside, Satu likes to use his strong jaws and teeth to just break it open, Cinta would pound it on rocks and knock out the gelatin, while Karen uses a small stick to get the good stuff.

You will also notice when you look at the exhibit that there are large, plastic items hung on ropes. While they are not natural looking, they fulfill the other requirement: they are orangutan proof. We use these as permanent enrichment items in the exhibit. In addition to the animals using them to swing and play with, we also put food items inside periodically. As a result, the orangutans check them every day. This increases their activity level, but it also mimics a natural behavior. Orangutans have a mental map of the rain forest: where the fruiting trees are located, and what is edible. They remember where they found food in the past and return to it later.

Tanya Howard is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Orangutan Aisha at 5 Months.


Big Cat Preferences, Part 3

Thanks to our dedicated animal care staff, we have now completed all the initial preference trials (see Big Cat Preferences and Big Cat Preferences, Part 2) with lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Our findings reveal that there are both species and individual differences in enrichment preference, which will help us make educated decisions when providing enrichment for our felids. Ensuring the highest quality of care for every animal in the collection is our top priority, and this is just one project leading toward that goal.

The next phase of this project is being completed by Erin Lane, our Neeper Endowed Fellow, with the assistance of some of our wonderful volunteers. The project includes examining the effects of enrichment (scents and objects) on the 24-hour behavior of lions. We have installed cameras throughout the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s lion exhibit to observe what the effects of the enrichment are both during the day and at night. This will also provide some insight into the activity budgets of the animals. For example, throughout the day a person might spend about 8 hours sleeping (33%), 1 hour commuting to and from work (4.2%), 9 hours working (37.5%), 2 hours cooking/eating (8.3%), 3 hours watching tv (12.5%), and 1 hour exercising (4.2%). We want to know what percentage of time the lions eat, sleep, rest, socialize, and play. This information will help us make sure that our enrichment program is keeping the animals active and healthy.

We will also be recording different behaviors such as scent marking, sniffing, and clawing to make sure we are providing opportunities for these behaviors, which are part of their natural behavior. Keep in mind that lions in the wild typically sleep between 16 and 20 hours a day (66.6% to 83.3%), and we hope our lions spend their time in a similar fashion. If you have been to the Safari Park’s Lion Camp before, you probably already know that they spend a good portion of their time sleeping just the way a lion should. The question is: how much?

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



Bai Yun inhales a tantalizing scent.

Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blog. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

At the San Diego Zoo, there is one animal that has always stolen the show – the giant panda.  People from all over the world are infatuated with the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, and we got the chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of all the “panda-monium.”

We met with Suzanne Hall, a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, for a tour of the Giant Panda Research Station.

If you’ve ever been to the Zoo, you’ve probably passed by the Panda Research Station billions of times and never thought of what goes on inside, but believe me, a lot does.  It takes a lot of educated and passionate people to conserve a species, and Ms. Hall is the epitome of a passionate individual who strives for change. When asked to describe her job, she said, “We are the science of saving species” and after telling us all about her job, there was no denying it.

Ms. Hall’s focus is on bears and their specific behaviors. From observing animals in their natural environment to writing blogs about the animals, Ms. Hall is incredibly invested in her job.  A big part of her job revolves around the study of animals’ behaviors and recording them and then applying her knowledge. So we could experience a day in the life of a research technician, Ms. Hall gave us a small ethogram (a table of different types of behaviors) allowing us to see what tools she and her colleagues work with. She showed us a video of Keesha, a sloth bear, and asked us to record what we saw based on the previously given ethogram codes. We only watched and recorded behaviors from a two-minute video, which is miniscule compared to the hours that research technicians spend observing animals. I really enjoyed observing animals, and it was exciting to see what a day in the life of a research technician is like.

Right now, Ms. Hall is focusing on sun bears and educated us about the challenges they face, as well as the steps the Institute is taking to help them.  According to Ms. Hall, sun bears are incredibly likely to go extinct due to the recent decline of their habitat by 30 percent.  Researchers have been studying sun bear cub behaviors at the San Diego Zoo and hope to compare their observations to orphaned sun bears in Borneo. The goal of this research is to provide some insight on the behavior and survival of orphans in the wild. It’s also important to have animals in managed-care facilities so there is a self-sustaining breeding population in the case that something happens to the animals in the wild. These animals play a crucial role in educating visitors about the species and why they are so important to the environment. They also allow for research to be conducted to aid a population in the wild.

To learn more about her job, Ms. Hall gave us an exclusive tour of the Giant Panda Research Station. She spends most of her time with the animals, but when she’s not there, she is writing blog posts as well. She led us through the building and to the main food source for the pandas, the bamboo refrigerator. Most of the bamboo fed to the pandas is grown on Zoo and Safari Park grounds, and considering the size of the bamboo refrigerator, that’s a lot!

After learning so much about pandas, we went into the exhibit viewing area to observe and learn about the specific pandas. One of the pandas, Bai Yun, has been with the Zoo since 1996! Ms. Hall talked to us about how all the Zoo animals are given enrichment objects to stimulate natural behaviors. Researchers are able to identify which objects the animal favors, as well as observe how they interact with the objects. Bai Yun’s favorite enrichment items include kitchen spices and perfumes. She prefers pumpkin pie spice and Polo cologne, and she actually covers herself with it!

It was really exciting to be able to experience a completely different side of the pandas by understanding what methods are being employed to study their behavior, as well as talking to a professional about her job. From now on I’ll never view the panda exhibit the same way!

Katherine, Real World Team (week 2)


Panda Wins Best Mom Title

Bai Yun enjoys some aromatherapy!

A few months ago, in honor of Mother’s Day, San Diego Zoo Global thought it would be fun to have a poll on our Facebook page, giving Facebook “friends” a chance to vote for their favorite Zoo or Safari Park animal mom. There were four animal mothers to choose from: koala Yabber, tiger Delta, hippo Funani, and giant panda Bai Yun. The prize was money to be used for enrichment for the winning mom.

Well, you all have cast your votes, and I am happy to say Bai Yun won hands down!

We keepers decided to spend the prize money to purchase an array of essential oils for Bai to use for enrichment. Bai has always been olfactory oriented, and in the past she has enjoyed unique scents to investigate.

A few weeks ago, we set up her exhibit and decided to let her choose which scent she liked the best. We put the scents on two Boomer ball toys; one scent was ylang ylang, the other was cinnamon oil. Our Zoo photographer was on hand to get some pictures of our girl enjoying her aromatherapy gifts!

The exhibit door opened, and Bai went straight for the enrichment items, totally ignoring her bamboo. Her choice of scent? She LOVED the ylang ylang. Our panda mother picked up the scented toy and was seen rolling on it and rubbing her face all over it. In the end, she smelled very fragrant!

Bai was very generous and let her son, Yun Zi, and daddy Gao Gao share her gifts. They both loved the cinnamon oil scent, and both chose to interact with the scented toys first and not eat bamboo!

As keepers, it is very rewarding to watch our animals enjoy enrichment items, and the numerous essential oils we were able to purchase will be greatly cherished by our pandas! Thank you all for your votes for our beautiful mom, Bai Yun. I know she will enjoy her aromatherapy “spa days” enrichment! We have lots of scents to choose from!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Thank You, Panda Fans!


Primate Enrichment

A siamang and orangutan inspect a painted gourd that was filled with goodies.

What exactly is enrichment and how is it used in the San Diego Zoo’s overall animal care program? This is a question that is asked more frequently than in the past. The general definition of enrichment is to make fuller, more meaningful, or more rewarding. This has a direct correlation to enhancing the quality of life for the primates in our care. Enrichment at the Zoo is equal in value to the provision of food, water, and shelter. Keepers spend many hours figuring out ways to stimulate the animals in our care, both mentally and physically. One of the biggest challenges is providing the monkey or ape with something that is safe and indestructible!

Orangutans are known for their independent thinking capabilities. If there is a way to dismantle or destroy something, they will find it. But just this process is stimulating! Since orangutans are arboreal, we try to provide items that we can freely hang from the climbing structures inside their habitat, simulating the natural movement of branches. Large plastic disks, balls, and other objects can be stuffed with plant material or novel food items like cereal, sunflower seeds, hot sauce, and spices. These enrichment items are then secured to the climbing structure with hardware and rope. We have to be diligent about making sure the nuts and bolts are very tight, otherwise one of our more mischievous orangutans (I didn’t want to name names, but…Karen) will be dismantling the apparatus within moments!

Hammocks are always a favored piece of furniture for most primates. They use them as storage units, to lounge in, and play on. And, for the industrious species, unravel, unweave, and retie with their own unique knot-tying skills!

The black mangabeys, which can be found in the Zoo’s Lost Forest, are very adept at manipulating puzzle feeders that are provided for them inside their “bedrooms.” Opposable thumbs come in handy when attempting to pull raisins out of tiny holes on a board or moving peanuts through a maze mounted to their enclosure. Hanging mirrors are also a novel way to spy on your neighbors down the hall! I have seen monkeys hold the mirrors (with safety glass) and angle them just right to get a good look at me or one of their conspecifics in the next room!

Primates are problem solvers. They use this skill every day in their natural environments as well as in their habitats at the Zoo. With the help of the Zoo’s March Wish List, we can provide opportunities to encourage stimulation for exploration, foraging, problem solving, and the senses. Wish List items include paper streamers for the bonobos, flowering shrubs for our colobus monkeys, and mirrors for Francois’ langurs,

Kim Livingstone is a lead primate keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Gorilla Born at the San Diego Zoo.


Pandas: Playtime and Bamboo

As a narrator, I watch the pandas four or five hours a day, five days a week. Talking on the microphone, answering questions, and chatting with guests keeps me busy during my shift, but I have ample time to observe the pandas while I’m talking, so I get to see some interesting behaviors.

Bai Yun plays with her cub, but we don’t see this behavior every day, so it is special to watch the two tussle with each other. One morning Bai Yun was in a playful mood and solicited interaction with Yun Zi. She played the same way I’ve seen dogs interact with one another. Bai Yun reared back and came down, keeping her forelegs stiff, bouncing in front of Yun Zi and inviting him to play. They rolled in the grass and bit at each other.

Sometimes Bai Yun holds onto the cub, flipping him this way and that, and biting him all over. These are play bites, of course, and he seldom complains. Sometimes he gets out of Mom’s grasp and runs away a few feet, then he comes right back for more. Yun Zi is like all the cubs (especially Mei Sheng) and bites on his mom whenever he is next to her. The cub gets a mouthful of fur and loose skin and tugs and twists as hard as he can. Mom ignores him unless he goes for her ears; ears are off-limits, and she swats him away. Not hard to imagine why, as those ears aren’t as tough as the rest of her. The keepers are always providing enrichment for Bai Yun, but there is nothing like a cub to enrich her days.

Sometimes I see cubs do pretty remarkable things that demonstrate their intelligence. The other afternoon our pandas had fresh bamboo. Bai Yun was sitting by the tree on the far left side of the enclosure. Yun Zi likes to carry his bamboo up to the hammock, but the redesign of the enclosure had removed the branch he used to get up to the flat rock. He picked up a long, skinny culm (the jointed stem of the bamboo) with lots of branches and looked over the situation. He carried the bamboo in his mouth and dragged it all the way across the front of the enclosure. When he got to the right side, he climbed the new diagonal tree trunk and up over the tall stump. With the bamboo still in his mouth, he transferred to a long branch on the elm tree and climbed down the branch until he reached his hammock with his prize.

Yun Zi is eating a lot more bamboo than he was only about a month ago. He likes the crunchy, pencil-sized branches and is eating leaves and narrow pieces of the big stuff, timber bamboo, that he finds in Bai Yun’s leftovers. Yun Zi really likes the leafeater biscuits and tries to get to some of them before Mom does. The keepers place a few biscuits (along with a few carrot, yam, and apple slices) on the logs, branches, and rocks, scattering the goodies so the pandas have a foraging experience much like in the wild. Watching the little fellow pick up and hold the treats in his paws and put them in his mouth always fascinates me. It’s all instinct, and he does it so well. Now that Yun Zi is eating the treats, the keepers have increased the amount they put out. The leafeater, or folivore, biscuits are a reddish color and shaped like a domino. Lighter than a dog biscuit, they are crunchy and not very flavorful. (Yes, I’ve tried them.)

Each day with the pandas is special, and I never get bored watching them. Best of all, I get to share my enthusiasm with all the panda fans who love them as much as I do.

Chris Tratnyek is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Attraction.


Big Cat Preferences, Part 2

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.