Enrich Your Pet's Life With Lessons From the Zoo

grizzly bear playing at the zoo
Courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Food placed in objects like this barrel encourages animals to dig for it as they would in nature.

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Cleveland Metroparks Zoo holds a yearly event called Creature Comforts that highlights enrichment activities and encourages pet owners to think the same way about domesticated animals' natural abilities and how to engage them.

It can be as simple as considering why a pet enjoys certain types of play. "Understand why they're reacting to you the way they're reacting, because if you learn about their behavior, you can even do cooler stuff with them," Schoffner says.

Think about their wild relatives, he says, and you'll see why a dog is excited by a squeaky toy: "When your dog hears that squeaking sound, that kicks in its wild instincts back to its wolf cousins: Oh, this is something I should catch!"

Same with cats going crazy for a feather toy — it engages the predatory instinct they share with a lion or leopard. "The only difference in cat behavior that I find is the size," he says. Whether you're talking about tigers or house cats, "they have the same instincts; they react to the same things."

This means that much of what keepers do for zoo animals applies to your pets as well.

  • Think about how to extend feeding time with food toys and puzzles — and don't give up if your pet doesn't like the first one. Try another, because individual animals are different. Schoffner recalls one time he gave the chimpanzees the same gallon jug with food in it, and each one approached it differently: "One went at it with brute force and used her canines to rip it open. Another one tried to suck everything out through the spout. One chimp — who was the smartest of the bunch — what she did was take that jug and pound it on the ground till everything was broken up inside, and she poured it into her hand and ate it that way."
  • Taking a lesson from good exhibit design, provide high places, like tall cat trees, for your cats — that's where they naturally prefer to be, and maybe they won't use your countertops to satisfy that urge instead.
  • When it comes to toys, it's important to switch things around, because novelty is a crucial feature of enrichment. "A rule of thumb is, if the same object is in there for more than two days, it's become furniture — it's not enrichment," he says.
  • Don't get discouraged when not every idea works out. "We've had our aquarist go to great lengths trying to make very complicated puzzle feeders for the octopus, and it'll interact with it and lose interest for whatever reason," Schoffner says. "Or else something that has taken days to design and put together, they've solved in a matter of 20 seconds."
  • Expect the unexpected. Even if an animal does something other than you predicted, it's still enrichment. Schoffner tells of a time they put a coconut in an exhibit with a three-banded armadillo, a small armored mammal that can roll up into a ball about the size of a coconut. "He got visibly excited and was trying to mate with the coconut," he says. "It turned out to be very stimulating to him, obviously, but it wasn't what we expected to happen."

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