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It's playtime at the zoo: from computer games to art projects, zoos are using enrichment activities to keep animals entertained. But critics say no amount of fun and games can mimic the wild.


An octopus named Louis loves playtime with Mr. Potato Head. In fact, keepers at Blue Reef Aquarium in England have a hard time releasing the popular children's toy from the octopus's suckered clutches.

It's time for Computer 101 at Zoo Atlanta. The orangutan named Madu is already a computer-game whiz. Now she's teaching her son to be a gamer himself.

Arts and crafts is the favorite pastime of the elephant, Mai Tai. As the Cincinnati Zoo's resident artist, she'll gladly paint a jumbo portrait in exchange for some jelly beans.

While it might seem like these animals are enrolled in some kind of wild preschool, these "classes" are all part of a normal day in many zoos and aquariums. Over the past decade, major U.S. zoos and aquariums have started programs in animal enrichment, providing a stimulating environment for their captive animals. By using toys, games, and other goodies, zoos hope to avoid a feeling that can be common in zoo animals: boredom.


Since zoo animals spend their days isolated in the same enclosures, keepers make an effort to give animals activities that unleash their natural instincts. "We want to ensure that animals in captivity get the opportunity to behave like their wild counterparts," says Elizabeth Arbaugh, the enrichment coordinator at the Detroit Zoological Society.

How do you make a lion in Detroit feel like it's at home on the African savannah, hunting prey such as zebras? "We go into the zebra yard and get sticks or zebra dung, and put them in a box or a toy that the lions can manipulate," explains Arbaugh. While this sounds unappealing to humans, interaction with their preys poop is perfectly natural for a lion. "All carnivores have a highly developed sense of smell," says Scott Silver, a curator at the Queens Zoo in New York. "It's interesting for them to smell different scents." When animals are exposed to an interesting scent, they usually lick, rub, or roll around the spot, Silver explains. That's how keepers tell if the animal is responding.


Scents don't have to be completely natural either. Cheetahs at some zoos go purr-crazy over perfume. Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men is one favorite. "We have a whole array of spices, perfume, and scents," says the Detroit Zoo's Arbaugh. "We get very creative."



While it seems odd that keepers spend time fending their cheetahs' favorite perfume, animal-enrichment practices have an important purpose: Bored animals can be dangerous. "They can exhibit [repetitive] pacing, self-mutilation, hyperaggressiveness, and loss of appetite," says Marc Bekoff, a biologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. So to keep animals--and their keepers--safe, zoos practice enrichment and design exhibits that put animals at ease.

Many zoos have gone to great lengths to phase out the small concrete cages that housed animals in the past. Now they furnish animals' living spaces with plants, rocks, and moats to mimic their natural surroundings.


But some critics of zoos don't think these efforts are enough. "You can't give all animals in zoos what they really need [in terms of] social and physical environments," says Bekoff.

Elephants are a prime example, he says. The 3-ton pachyderms roam as far as 48 kilometers (30 miles) a day in the wild. They live in large groups, and have complex social relationships.

A single elephant in a one-acre enclosure would be bored, lonely, and lethargic. In fact, elephants in captivity are prone to arthritis, foot problems, and sometimes even behavior problems. For this reason, some major zoos like Detroit's have shut down their elephant exhibits. The Detroit Zoo retired its two elephants to a 2,000-acre wildlife sanctuary in California.

"Some zoos are far better than they were," says Bekoff. "But I always say that good welfare isn't good enough. I would like to see all zoos phased out."


Scott Silver, the Queens Zoo curator, acknowledges the challenges. "When you keep animals in captivity, you want to keep them in a safe and stable environment. But the world is a complex place. Animals need complexity in their environment."

Enrichment adds that complexity that animals crave, says Silver. That's why many zoos try to enrich all types of animals, not just "crowd pleasers" like big cats and primates.

For reptiles and amphibians, enrichment can involve something as simple as changing the humidity or temperature in their exhibit. Keepers at the Bronx Zoo in New York go a step further, offering their poison dart frogs a food puzzle--a cricket-filled coconut shell--to keep them busy. And a Komodo dragon at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in Florida celebrated its eighth birthday with a meat cake topped with dead mice, simulating the type of food it would eat in the wild.

Michael Guilfoyle, head keeper of the Cincinnati Zoo's Nocturnal House, gives his animals a blackout for an extra-special treat. "On a slow day, we'll sometimes turn off all the lights and give them total darkness," says. "The animals respond by making different sounds."


As Cincinnati Zoo's bats revel in the darkness, its elephant, Mai Tai, might be picking up a paintbrush. But if enrichment is meant to bring out animals' natural behaviors, how do painting and Zoo Atlanta's computer games for apes apply?

"Certainly there are no laptops in the jungle," says Silver. "But sometimes enrichment elicits behaviors that [correspond] to behaviors done in the wild." For primates, allowing them to make choices about their environment is stimulating. "In the jungle, an orangutan can decide if he wants go right to forage for food, or go left. By picking what he wants to do on a computer screen, it's like controlling his surroundings," Silver explains.

For many zoos, enrichment has become an essential part of animal care, just like feeding and cleaning. "We do this every day," says Arbaugh of the Detroit Zoo. "And our keepers watch the animals to make sure they are engaged."

With 175 million visitors in 2007, zoos and aquariums undeniably provide pleasure and entertainment to scores of people, as well as educate them about the diversity of animals. Bekoff views animal enrichment as a way of giving back. "While we have zoos, we owe it to the animals to give them the best lives we can," he says.


Watch videos of animal enrichment at the Honolulu Zoo at:


* Do you or a friend have a pet? If so what tricks does it know? What kinds of tricks would you teach a pet? What kinds of tricks might zookeepers teach an animal in captivity?


* Composer-scientist David Soldier traveled to Thailand and created two music recordings in which elephants were the musicians. He gave the elephants various traditional Thai wind and percussion instruments specially made to fit their size and strength. The first recording, Elephant Orchestra, was released in 2002. The follow-up recording, Elephonic Rhapsodies, was released in 2005.

* Elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Thailand that have been trained to paint made it into the Guinness Book of World Records when one of their artworks sold for $39,000--the highest price ever paid for an elephant painting. Profits Dora the sale will help pay for the care of elephants living at the camp.


* Do you think animals in captivity get bored? What behaviors would tell you that they are bored? What behaviors would tell you they are enjoying their environment? Do you think animals enjoy being taught tricks?


LANGUAGE ARTS: Perform research about how animals are kept and treated in a zoo near where you live versus on an animal preserve. Which do you think is the better option for animals in captivity'? Is keeping animals in captivity the best thing for them? Form teams with students of similar opinions, then debate the issue with opposing teams.


* To see some of the paintings made by elephants, go to:

* To read more about Madu the orangutan and her role as a surrogate mom to an infant primate, visit:

* Watch a video of a bonobo named Panbanisha who is painting a work of art for the Great Ape Trust of Iowa's Apes Helping Apes art exhibit: /2008/nr_71a08.php
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Author:Carney, Elizabeth
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 12, 2009
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