I have been told that I can be a little competitive. I would like to think it is just that I am driven and do not like to fail. Regardless, the end result is that if something is a little difficult for me I will often keep trying until I can get it right. I often see that same manic glint in the eyes of our zoo residents as they try to figure out an enrichment item. Enrichment is something that keepers offer to the animals at the Zoo every day. It can be something as simple as a new food item, or as complex as a giant barrel made to look like a bird and filled with meat. Whatever it may be, it is something different in an animal’s environment that encourages natural behaviors.
For me, nothing is more powerful than watching our carnivores “hunt”. The absolute stillness which overtakes their bodies as they stalk their “prey” makes me not want to blink for fear of missing that crucial lunge. Of course the pounce is so big that there was never a chance of missing it in the first place! The Carnivore Keepers at the Houston Zoo help to encourage those natural hunting behaviors through the enrichment items they provide.
The carnivores at the zoo are fed a special meat diet formulated to meet the nutritional requirements of both felids and canids (cats and dogs). They also receive special treats ranging from fish, to chicken, to even meal worms and crickets! Presenting their regular diet as well as special treats in a variety of ways helps to engage that hunting behavior and offers the carnivores as well as our guests something special.
This can be especially important for social carnivores such as Lions and African Painted Dogs. Offering them special food items as a group or an opportunity to hunt as a pack reestablishes crucial social ties. Lions, for example, eat in order of a specific hierarchy. The male eats first followed by females in order of dominance. While keepers feed the majority of their diet separately to discourage aggression and make sure each lion receives their fair share, it is important to occasionally encourage the social interaction that occurs around a carcass.
The 15th of every month allows keepers to do just that. The carnivores are offered a treat called bone-in-meat. This is a large hunk of meat with the bone still inside. The larger cats receive pieces ranging anywhere from 15-30lbs! Presentations of this treat vary from sending it down a zip-line to staking in on exhibit, but the ripping and tearing involved in the consumption of this treat is enriching for animals and guests alike.