Critter corner column: Zoo visits offer enrichment all around

Dec. 19, 2010 at 6:19 a.m.

By Judie Farnsworth

When you visit The Texas Zoo you may see a huge blue Boomer Ball in the tiger exhibit.

There may be hanging toy-like balls and heavy tubes in primate exhibits. They may not look like natural habitat objects, but do intensify the natural instincts of our animals.

And there's more going on that's not as apparent.

Zoos concepts have changed over the years and, happily, are continuing to evolve. There is a strong focus on enriching the lives of the animals. By adding variety to their days and stimulating their senses, the animals are healthier and exhibit more natural behavioral traits. Enrichment gives proper attention to both physical and mental well-being.

People visiting zoos have also evolved. They are anxious to learn. They expect more and realize the value of a zoological facility where there is an obvious effort to give the animal's lives more meaning. It's a win-win situation.

Feeding or food related activity is the most widely used form of enrichment. Keepers present food in a variety of ways. It might be hidden, scattered or buried to stimulate natural foraging behaviors. An animal is motivated to think, just as it would in the wild. Large tubes may be stuffed with hay containing live crickets, worms or grubs and other morsels of food. Hollow balls can be filled with food or treats that are dispensed during activity.

Crickets released in bird areas create an excellent hunting experience.

Our keepers are tuned in to the personalities of our animals and quite innovative in meeting their needs.

Social interaction is important for some animals. This is especially true with primates. For others, occasional interaction with another animal is sufficient. Grouped animals go through a carefully monitored introduction process to assure compatibility.

Zoo habitats offer great opportunities for enrichment. Changes are made periodically that add interest. New plantings, a complex water feature or simply placing a snake's shed skin in an enclosure will increase behavioral activity.

Following Halloween, some of our animals had a fantastic time with pumpkins donated for them. Branches at new levels, logs and rock piles all encourage exploration and add diversity. A heat rock or lamp gives a reptile the natural experience of thermoregulating as it moves from a warm to cool area. Objects that can be manipulated using hands, feet, tail, horns, head or mouth for investigation and play all result in a more alert and healthy animal.

The Texas Zoo has a terrific staff. Because of their attention to the total well-being of our animals, your visit to the zoo will also be more enriching.

Note: We will be happy to take a few live Christmas trees after the holidays. There must be no tinsel or flocking. Please call first to check on our needs and make arrangements, 361-573-7681. Perfume no longer wanted can be used in scent trails. Wooden crates or kegs, play houses or heavy newsprint rolls are all useful. New, heavy-duty dog or parrot toys or Boomerball products are always welcomed. Check the website,, for more information.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.



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