CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens’ predictions for Super Bowl 50 are in, and they're unanimous: Komodo dragon Hudo, river otter Sugar and king penguins BB, Larry and Martin Luther all picked the Carolina Panthers to win the big game.
While watching the zoo’s team of prognosticators waddle, swim and topple their way through their predictions is great fun for human viewers, the activity is beneficial to the animals, too. It’s called enrichment.
Gone are the days of animals’ looking bored in tiny enclosures, said Wendy Rice, head keeper of the Africa exhibit. All Association of Zoos and Aquariums member zoos — like the Cincinnati Zoo — offer enrichment as a tool to engage, excite and challenge animals by enhancing their environment.
Animals in captivity have no natural worries, Rice said. They don’t have to forage for food, defend territory or avoid predators. Instead, she said, zoo animals have lots of free time. Enrichment keeps them occupied both mentally and physically.
“Enrichment is a ton of fun, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger part of zoos,” she said.
“For example the lions love chewing, obviously. They’re all about tearing things up and ripping into carcasses and hunting different things,” Rice said. “So we try to come up with items they could either play with or wrestle with, something that is big enough to simulate a prey item that they can tackle to the ground.”
In January 2015, the Cincinnati Zoo formed its own volunteer enrichment program to provide even more experiences for their residents. Last year the team constructed 239 enrichment devices, according to zoo volunteer Jen Moormeier, including everything from paper-mache birthday cakes to hammocks and balls constructed from firehose to challenging puzzle feeders made from PVC.
For one of their first projects, Moormeier said they crafted a cupcake filled with treats for Lana the orangutan’s 30th birthday, complete with a carrot on top resembling a candle. “It was total success,” she said.
“She tore it open to get all the treats — that’s foraging, and it’s a natural behavior. Anything we build, we try to mirror their natural behavior. So we try to help them simulate things that they would do in the wild.”
Before each device is built, Moormeier said it must be approved by a team of zoo veterinarians, keepers and nutritionists to ensure its safety and appropriateness. Once the green light is given, she said it takes the group about two weeks to complete a project, depending on availability of material. She said that, when a keeper comes to them with an approved design idea, their first response is always “yes.” Then they figure out the logistics.
“We have a team of about 20 people who have a variety of expertise across the board — a very amazing team of experts,” she said. “We have artists, engineers, tech people, military vets, so it’s a very eclectic group of people. So you leverage everybody’s expertise to do whatever project we’ve got.”
Working on materials for special events is especially fun for the group, she said, like creating the paper-mache footballs and helmets for the Super Bowl as well as goal posts for the penguins. Next she said they’ll be gearing up for Valentine’s Day with plenty of heart-themed items and well as paper-mache, treat-filled imitation Hershey Kisses.
“Last year we did a kissing booth that was on the outside of the exhibit, and our snow leopards came up to the booth so you could take an Instagram or selfie there,” she said. “The keepers put some scents and treats up by the window, so it heightens their curiosity and they came right over for photo ops.”
The Africa residents are provided with different types of enrichment every day, Rice said. On one morning, they inserted two large cylinders in the lion enclosure, which went unnoticed until one of the cubs knocked one over. Moments later, male John not only successfully commandeered the object but managed to wrestle with it, then accidentally roll it down the hill into the water. As the lions watched the cylinder float away, Rice explained that things sometimes don’t always go as planned.
“We got a bubble machine one time and thought, ‘It’s going to be great. Everybody is going to love the bubbles,’” she said. “The dogs loved it, and they were bouncing, hopping and popping bubbles and playing. And we brought it over here to the lions, and they were freaked out. Our ostrich was popping bubbles out on the savanna, our pelicans were interested, but our hoofstock seemed scared of it. So you never know.”
Besides introducing devices to animals’ environment, Rice explained that different scents, sounds, shapes and colors can also act as stimulation. She said zoo visitors and activity outside their enclosures also act as enrichment as animals are always looking for new things. For example, she said the lions became completely engrossed with a blimp that had flown in for a special event and spent the entire afternoon staring at it.
“Another huge part of enrichment is operant conditioning,” she said. “So any time you can ask animals to use their brains, their bodies and kind of do that problem solving by working with you and get reinforcement, that’s also very enriching. It’s the same way that humans train to play a sport and do it right, and it feels really good.”
Finding new types of enrichment that resonate with animals is especially rewarding and Wise said the zoo shares successful ideas with other zoos. “We just literally spend all day everyday trying to keep the animals happy and content, and enrichment plays such a big part.”