My job took me to the zoo.
It was a rather unorthodox assignment for a medical writer, but one of our faculty at Stanford medical school was teaching a rather unorthodox class at the San Francisco Zoo. A dozen Stanford sophomores signed up to spend two intensive weeks there learning about animal welfare and behavior and designing “enrichments” to make life more interesting for the lions, a giraffe and a kinkajou at the zoo.
These included a “Poop Shooter” to lob animal poop into the lion’s cage, a urine-soaked scratcher for a lone giraffe and a “Robo-Flower” to automatically dispense smoothies to the kinkajou, a tree-dwelling rainforest mammal that looks like a cross between a squirrel and a raccoon.
“Zoo animals have pretty good welfare already,” said Stanford’s Joseph Garner, PhD, an associate professor of comparative medicine who helped design and lead the class. “So it’s not about fixing things. It’s about how we can turn this animal on a little. How can we help the keepers manage the animal and improve the experience for guests.”
“It’s like if you lived in the same room your whole life. We want to change it up, keep it fresh and interesting – something novel,” said student Jennifer Ren.
For Floyd the giraffe, the students shook things up a bit by building a scratcher soaked in female giraffe urine to make it appealing to him. Instead of lurking in a corner of his paddock near the female enclosure, Floyd ventured out into his large pad to explore his new toy, where he was a lot more visible to zoo-goers.
“The giraffe is one of the largest and strongest animals on the planet, so building something that he is not going destroy in 30 seconds is a real challenge,” Garner said.
For the lions, the students adapted a conveyor-belt system to periodically shoot giraffe poop into the lion’s cage, where the male lion in particular found the aromatic pellets extremely interesting.
“Lions lie around all day watching and waiting. But when the zoo put the enrichment in, it was like somebody just flipped a switch,” Garner said. “The male lion was up and about and smelling and searching for the giraffe droppings, and performing all of this wonderful lion behavior.”
The students took their assignments very seriously, videotaping the animals’ responses and designing charts and graphs to measure the results, which they presented at a zoo ceremony last Friday in which they were celebrated for their contributions.
The students said they came away with a whole new perspective on zoos and wildlife behavior, as well as a gratifying sense of having designed something to improve the animals’ lives.
Previously: How horsemanship techniques can help doctors improve their art
Photo in featured entry box by Norbert von der Groeben