What Enrichment Do Big Cats Prefer?

Is enrichment a new concept to you? The next time you visit Brookfield Zoo, take extra notice, and you may see interesting and sometimes unusual items located in and around animal exhibits. These are most likely enrichment items!

Enrichment is provided to our animals to encourage them to engage in species-typical behaviors, keep them physically active, and cognitively stimulated. While enrichment is clearly beneficial to animal welfare, how do we determine which enrichment items to give to zoo animals? Or even further, could we figure out which items animals prefer?

Orangutan, Kecil, interacting with naturalistic enrichment item at Brookfield Zoo

We are currently working on data collected at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to determine which enrichment items lions, tigers, and cheetahs prefer to interact with and how their preferences influence their behavior long-term. To do so, a two-part study was conducted a few years ago. The first part of the study was a ten minute paired-choice preference assessment, which was used to determine which items the lions, tigers, and cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park preferred. Each individual was given the choice between two enrichment items. For ten minutes, the researcher recorded which item the animal approached first; how long the item was interacted with; and finally, if and how long the second item was interacted with. From the data collected, we were able to determine which item each individual preferred.

African lions, Isis and Zenda, at Brookfield Zoo

The second part of the study was a 24-hour behavioral monitoring period conducted with San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s lions. The purpose was to determine if the results from the ten minute preference assessment reflected how long the lions would interact with enrichment items over the course of 24 hours. It was predicted that preferred items (ones that had a long duration of interaction during the ten minute trials) would be interacted with more frequently, over longer periods of time, and would be returned to more often throughout the 24-hour period. One of the fifteen enrichment items used in the first part of the study was randomly selected and three of the selected item (one for each lion) were placed on exhibit each morning by animal care staff.

Researchers recorded the behavior of the lions from 8 cameras placed around the exhibit over each 24-hour period. The researchers recorded all instances of interaction with the enrichment and the duration of the interaction. Each animal’s behavioral state, location, and proximity to another individual was recorded every five minutes. This 24-hour behavioral monitoring was done twice with each item. That’s over 720 hours of behavioral data!

We are now analyzing the data and hope to learn if the ten minute preference assessments can predict how often the lions will interact with the enrichment items over the course of 24 hours. If this is true, animal care staff could use preference assessments with a variety of species to ensure we are meeting their behavioral needs. Determining which items are preferred also improves visitor experience. If a desired enrichment item is placed near a guest viewing area, visitors will be more likely to watch the animals engage in exciting and natural behaviors!
Initial results are promising, so keep an eye out for a story on our final results.

Amur Tiger, Whirl, interacts with rock enrichment at Brookfield Zoo

-Jocelyn Woods
Behavioral Research Assistant

Posted: 3/1/2019 10:41:39 AM by Bryan Todd Oakley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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