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Favorite projects while the Zoo is closed

Hey guys! Nadia here from the Hoofstock Team in the Mammals area! With the Zoo closed to our guests, I thought this would be a great time to tell you what we’ve been up to behind the scenes! Even with the Zoo closed, we animal care specialists are still here every day to ensure the animals continue receiving top-of-the-line care. Our day to day basics are still the same, but we’ve had additional time to spend on extra projects. Today, I’m going to tell you about two of my favorite projects we’re currently working on.

Enrichment is used to encourage our animals to spend time exhibiting natural behaviors. In terms of giraffes, some of our enrichment focuses on challenging them to use their tongues in a variety of ways to get their food. Giraffes naturally spend about 50% of their time browsing through treetops, eating the best branches of leaves. Their tongues, which can be up to 20 inches long, are used to reach, twist, and break off the desired branch. In human care, it’s important that we offer the giraffes multiple novel ways to forage for their food so that we can challenge them to use their tongues for similar amounts of time as their wild counterparts do. If we offer them the same type of enrichment day after day, the giraffes would quickly learn how to get to their food easily, and it would no longer be enriching. As animal care professionals, we’re constantly communicating with other AZA-accredited zoos to share ideas on enrichment. This week we’ve been spending a lot of our time building new enrichment! So far my favorite project was built by my colleague, Sarah. Her special food device, which is composed of multiple Jolly balls with holes in them, can be filled with browse, produce and grain. The item can be hung at the highest points of our habitat, which will challenge our giraffes to use their tongues to find the holes in the balls and work out how to grab the food inside.

My next favorite project of the week involves training with the warthog, Eleanor! Warthogs are members of the Suidae family, commonly referred to as the pig family. Warthogs are highly intelligent animals and pick up on new information quickly. Because of this, training with Eleanor is always fun! Some of her best behaviors include sit, down, target, station, touch, speak, kneel, bow, up, and opening her mouth on cue. However, all of these behaviors are normally trained at two different training panels behind the scenes. She is normally trained with one keeper, who asks for a behavior and rewards her with food. With the Zoo closed, we decided to try something new with Eleanor and train her at her habitat glass! Although this might sound like an easy transition, we have a few obstacles. For example, the glass provides a sound barrier. This makes verbally asking Eleanor to do a behavior difficult. Warthogs don’t have good eyesight and so we normally rely heavily on verbal cues. To get past this obstacle, we’ve added a second trainer into her regime. The second trainer stands above the glass and verbally asks for a behavior while the first trainer gives the visual cue. When the behavior is preformed, the second trainer throws Eleanor her favorite food item. Because this is a new space and we want to keep training fun, we’ve only been asking for Eleanor’s most basic behaviors, like target and station. As she gets used to the new space, we’ll start to add in her more difficult behaviors – sort of like moving a level up in a good video game!

Well, that’s it from me for now! We look forward to seeing all of our wonderful guests back at the Zoo when we open again!
(Photo by Nadia M.)
Nadia M.
Keeper I, Mammals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl