Bella the Jaguar’s New Enrichment Item

Excellence and innovation are hallmarks of the care that the animals at the Reid Park Zoo receive every day from the Zoo’s Animal Care Staff. Whether it’s training a rhinoceros to allow a staff member to draw blood for the animal’s health and veterinary care, inventing a life-saving technique to treat a congenital kidney problem in an African lion, or hundreds of things staff members do to enhance the animals’ lives, the Zoo and its staff are guided by deep care, excellence, and innovation.

A good example of excellence and innovation in the animals’ care is what is called “ enrichment.” Enrichment refers to objects or activities that bring out an animal’s natural behaviors and cognitive engagement — often, the animal’s puzzle-solving skills. Just like in people, cognitive engagement and physical activity are important for keeping the Zoo’s animals mentally and physically robust. Zoo animals can’t join book clubs, play video games, or do crossword puzzles, but they can be stimulated to explore. For instance, novel scents dotted about in a habitat are very stimulating for an animal whose species naturally depends on an acute sense of smell. Objects that an animal can safely bat around or pounce on or pry open to get a treat are favorite examples of enrichment. Enrichment can even be as straightforward as rearranging permanent structures in an animal’s habitat. These kinds of things stimulate the animals’ senses and brains, and they engage the animals’ natural behaviors. Enrichment is so important to the health of the animals that the Reid Park Zoo has a staff member whose whole job is to oversee animal enrichment for the Zoo’s animals — a sort of Animal Enrichment Czar! (The real title is Animal Welfare Specialist.)

Reid Park Zoo recently unveiled an exciting new invention for animal enrichment! You can look for it the next time you visit the Zoo. This new device is the fruit of a new collaboration between the Zoo’s “Animal Enrichment Czar” and a team of engineering students at the University of Arizona. Reid Park Zoo and the UA already have long-standing, productive collaborations in Animal Science and more recently in veterinary medicine, and this collaboration with Engineering adds a whole new dimension to those.

The new enrichment device is getting its first use with Bella, Reid Park Zoo’s jaguar. If you haven’t seen Bella yet, her name suits her perfectly — she is absolutely beautiful! Bella already receives many types of enrichment. She has tree trunks to climb on, a pool of water to plunge into, and she is periodically given an oxtail dangling from a tree trunk high above the ground. For the oxtail, Bella needs to use her sharp vision to spot the treat and then has to figure out whether to use her impressive jumping skill or her climbing skill as the best way to get at the treat.

What does the new enrichment device add to this? The new device has two modules, both placed just outside Bella’s habitat. The first module uses an electronic sensor to detect Bella’s presence nearby. When she approaches the sensor, the first module triggers the activation of a second module. The second module is where the fun comes in! One secondary module has a blower with a nylon sock-puppet attached to it. When the blower turns on, the sock-puppet pops up a few feet high and begins flopping and waving around. Visually tracking moving objects is an essential behavior for jaguars in the wild, and this dancing sock-puppet fully engages that behavior in Bella — she visually locks on to the puppet and follows every move. Another secondary module that the UA students designed and fabricated blows bubbles into Bella’s habitat. Bella loves the bubbles!

You might have seen this exciting device for animal enrichment when it was featured on the local TV news. The UA Engineering students who designed and built the new device — who are referred to as “Team 21034” — won $5,000 and the Raytheon Award for Overall Design in this year’s Craig M. Berge Design Day Competition at the UA. The UA students, the Zoo, and Bella all won here!

A great feature of this new enrichment device is that Bella can control the delivery of the enrichment herself, by figuring out how to move in ways that activate the device. It makes her overall environment more challenging and more fun. Another nice aspect is that the device is small enough to be easily moved to other animals’ habitats. The system also allows the creation of new secondary modules that could be tailored to the particular skills and behaviors of other Zoo animals, perhaps to make a sound or show a visual display, for example. Imagine the fun the Zoo’s animal care staff will have in coming up with different secondary modules for the different animals! And through its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Reid Park Zoo may be able to share the design of the new device with other AZA-accredited zoos around the country.

Excellence and innovation — hallmarks of the Reid Park Zoo and the guiding principles for the design of the new Reid Park Zoo expansion!

Originally published at http://reidparkzooexpansion.org on June 9, 2021.

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