Grizzly Bears Wrestle in Snow at the San Diego Zoo

Grizzly bear brothers Scout and Montana enjoyed a "snow day" recently at the San Diego Zoo.

Grizzly bear brothers Scout and Montana enjoyed a “snow day” recently at the San Diego Zoo.

Grizzly bears Montana and Scout received a cool surprise when they were released into the exhibit Saturday morning at the San Diego Zoo. Everything in their habitat was covered in snow, given to them as a gift from a donor. The bear brothers were hesitant at first but quickly warmed up to the experience by wrestling, running and a lot of digging.

The San Diego Zoo’s 8-year-old grizzly bear brothers have been at the San Diego Zoo since 2007 and have a reputation for being playful. Snow is just one of the many items provided as an enrichment activity for exploring and foraging.

It was once thought that there were 86 different kinds of grizzlies and brown bears in North America alone. Today, scientists agree that there is only one species of brown bear with 6 recognized subspecies. Brown bears in interior North America are known as grizzly bears because their brown fur is tipped with white or tan; the word “grizzly” means “sprinkled or streaked with gray.”

Photo taken May 2, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo


Heartfelt Thanks to Our Invaluable and Inspiring Volunteers

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

April 12- 18 is National Volunteer Appreciation Week, and in the spirit of the celebration, we want to shout out to the world how truly invaluable and inspiring San Diego Zoo Global’s volunteers are. At the current time, we have over 1200 active volunteers in our system, but over the course of the year that often swells to over 2,000. The ebb and flow comes as extra help is requested for an event or fieldwork—and we always have eager hands ready to help. These amazing people give freely of their energy, expertise, and time—we recently hit one million hours of recorded service!

Our gifted volunteers support all of the staff, from keepers to educators to researchers and beyond! They make enrichment items for the animals, strip the bamboo used to make giant panda bread for Gao Gao, answer “Dear San Diego Zoo” letters from children around the world, help guests find their way at the Zoo and the Park (and give them information that makes their visit even more enjoyable), and more. And if you are one of the 16 million viewers that love our live animal cams, you have volunteers to thank for finding and zooming in on the special moments you can’t see anywhere else.

The dictionary defines the word dedicated as having very strong support for or loyalty to a person, group, or cause. And that certainly describes our volunteers, who freely engage in San Diego Zoo Global’s mission and vision to end extinction. “Words cannot describe how amazing our volunteers are,” says Tammy Rach, Senior Manager, Volunteer Services. “SDZG Volunteers support all of our staff, engage in our mission and vision, and greatly improve the guest experience. They also contribute ideas and funds in support of our conservation efforts, and share their passion and dedication throughout the community with everyone they encounter.”

Through their dedication, energy, and commitment, San Diego Zoo Global volunteers are both invaluable and inspirational. They are truly heroes for wildlife!

To learn more about becoming a San Diego Zoo Global Volunteer, click here.

Wendy Perkins is a staff writer and blog monitor for San Diego Zoo Global.


Springtime for Polar Bears


Logs of all sizes are one of the enrichment items keepers provide for our polar bears.

Another breeding season has come and gone for our polar bears. Chinook and Kalluk bred this year in February, so the waiting game begins once again.

Sometime in late September or early October Chinook will be brought inside and given access to her private air-conditioned den where she will hopefully rear her first cubs. She has already started to show signs that she wants some “alone time,” so on most days you will see her on exhibit in the morning and in the “polar bear penthouse” in the afternoon where she has her own private pool! If you take a look behind the exhibit on the far left you may be able to get a glimpse of her through the pine trees.

Kalluk is just now starting to come out of his annual post-breeding season malaise and is once again playing with his sister Tatqiq. They have been wrestling both on land and in the pool!

The keepers are hard at work providing as much novel enrichment as possible for the bears. If you have been watching our Polar Bear Cam recently, you may have seen interesting things like a log-and-palm-frond shelter, foraging piles, and burlap sack “seals”. The bears love it when they tear into a “seal” and find things like favorite toys, bones, and melons. In the near future we hope to bring in a crane to move around the large logs and root balls in the exhibit as well as bring in new furniture. It is the goal of the Polar Team to provide a dynamic and ever-changing space for our bears. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a snow day sometime in the next couple of months!

We invite you to come down to see what the bears are up to!

Matthew Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


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!