Why you see toys and a bubble machine in Zoo Boise's exhibits
It doesn’t take much to make a lion’s day.
In the sweltering summertime, Zoo Boise’s lionesses Mudiwa and Obadiah think nothing’s better than a block of frozen blood. And they’re also partial to a spritz of diluted perfume — Victoria’s Secret is a favorite.
“The smellier, the better,” said Liz Littman, assistant director at the zoo. “Calvin Klein perfume samples are a big hit, too.”
It’s all part of the zoo’s animal enrichment efforts — activities, toys and treats that keep the animals engaged and in touch with their wild instincts. Since April, it’s been easier for animal lovers across the Treasure Valley to have their hand in that enrichment, thanks to the zoo’s Amazon Wish List. Many already have.
“Thank you to Cristina and Josie for purchasing our red pandas some fun toys off of their Amazon Wish List!” the zoo posted on Facebook in late July. Photos showed the zoo’s male panda, Winston, curiously exploring two colorful toys that Littman said were smeared in food fragrance.
“I wasn’t looking for accolades, but it was very sweet! It felt really good to see the end result of the wish list giving process,” said Cristina Grossi, a Salt Lake City resident who travels to Zoo Boise with her daughter just for the red pandas.
“Having that online list, you can feel like a part of their well-being from across the miles,” Grossi said.
And it’s not just red pandas that get to enjoy the toys. On Monday, zookeeper Sherry Barlet used donated treat dispensers to feed mealworms to meerkats. The toys, which wobble on a weighted base, can be stuffed with food that then falls out of small holes as the animal bats the toys around. For the meerkats, it’s a way to encourage their natural foraging behavior — part of the goal of enrichment, Littman said.
In addition to stimulating the animals’ instincts, there are a few other standards that enrichment must meet. Each toy or activity is approved by the zoo’s vet and curator, Littman explained. Enrichment has to be safe — for the animals, of course, and for zoo guests, keepers and even the animals’ exhibits. Of course, any toys or treats have to be nontoxic, too. And they should serve a purpose for the animals — whether that’s simulating hunting or foraging, provoking exploration via exciting smells or engaging other senses with new sights and sounds.
Of course, the animals aren’t always happy to have something new to explore. This week, zookeepers tried out a bubble machine with their coatis — South American members of the raccoon family. The mammals are big fans of smelly things, Littman said, and they use strong odors to cover their own scents just as they would in the wild.
“Around Thanksgiving we’ll give them pumpkin pie, and they smear it on themselves — their tails, everywhere,” she said.
The bubbles, however, weren’t such a big hit.
“We’ll try this at least two more times,” said lead zookeeper Melissa Williams, explaining that some animals are wary of enrichment the first time around.
Just like humans, Williams said, individual animals have their favorite toys and activities. The zoo’s male lion, who died in January, particularly loved peppermint.
During the summer, the porcupines like ice blocks frozen in bundt cake pans so they can stick their faces in the middle. Primates are big fans of old paper towel tubes stuffed with food — it’s a challenge for their dexterity. And, just like house cats, all big cats are interested in boxes, Littman said.
“It’s that ‘If I fits, I sits’ thing,” she said.
Enrichment also gives zoo staff an opportunity to be creative. Armed with a Home Depot 5-gallon bucket and a drill, one zookeeper made a foraging bucket for giraffe Jabari. The bucket is filled with leafy branches, and Jabari uses his flexible tongue (more than a foot long) to navigate the openings and strip leaves from inside.
“Giraffes eat acacia leaves in the wild, and acacia trees are very thorny,” said Littman. “So they’re always moving their tongues trying to get that food.”
For Jabari, humans are part of the enrichment, too. The 14-foot-tall giraffe has a view of Julia Davis Park from his enclosure, letting him look over Greenbelt bikers and passing pedestrians.
Enrichment can really be anything that changes an animal’s environment, Littman said — that’s why you’ll find plastic flamingos and boomboxes on the zoo’s wish list, too. At times, zookeepers have even played cartoon videos for the primates and put a disco ball in the penguin pool.
“Especially with our older animals, it can really bring their ‘inner child’ out,” said Williams.
And after a long day of feedings, cleanings and shoveling poop, the chance to toss around a toy isn’t just fun for the animals, said Barlet, another zookeeper. It enriches the humans, too.
“You can be creative, and you can watch them have fun,” Barlet said. “It’s the best part of the day.”