I tighten my right arm around the cheetah’s neck. He has a deep purr, like a Harley-Davidson heard cruising along two blocks away. I try not to think of his teeth and claws, but his teeth and claws become the only important subject. This is a 120-pound adult male that can hit 45 miles per hour in two seconds. I can’t even hiccup that fast.
“Shall I take another?” asks Maureen Hanley, a young animal handler at the San Diego Zoo.
I nod and she lifts the camera. The cheetah’s coat feels slightly greasy, and the fur on the top of its head is as fuzzy as an adolescent’s brush cut. He has wonderfully perky ears and black tear marks from his eyes to the edges of his mouth, although he’s never sad, or so I’m told. His name is Kimbunga, which means tornado in Swahili, and I am briefly part of his enrichment program — mental, physical, spiritual, environmental, the whole nine yards.
We are going for a walk through the zoo: three trainers, two cheetahs, a golden retriever by the name of Jessie, and me. The cheetahs have thick black leashes. It is midmorning on a Wednesday in May. The air is cool and the sun is shining, although it will rain later. The dog is also part of the cheetahs’ enrichment, a major part. Indeed, it could be said that Jessie is the cheetahs' mentor and spiritual guide. As far as this walk is concerned, the dog is definitely in charge, and she pushes on ahead of us all.
The second cheetah, Chobe, lifts a hind leg and pauses to spray the handrailing, which will give a few toddlers some interesting palm scents and cause definite anxiety in their domestic pets. Then Chobe stops to sniff a patch of sage growing by the side of the path. The cheetah likes sage. He slowly collapses in it and rolls on his back. Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s claws don’t retract, and they glitter in the sunlight as he wriggles on his back just like a house cat but a hundred and ten pounds heavier. The unretractable claws give the cheetah traction on its 70-mile-per-hour sprints.
Maureen Hanley says, “Come on, Chobe, let’s go. The others are getting far ahead.”
You do not hurry a cheetah. You coax and wheedle, but you do not hurry. With good grace, Chobe takes one last roll and gets to his feet.
At the top of the path a buildings-and-grounds worker is operating a wood chipper. He turns it off when he sees the animals, but the cheetahs still aren’t happy. They have heard that dreadful noise and they don’t want to get any closer. They assume stubborn expressions.
To the golden retriever, however, the chipper is just a rusty chunk of metal. She trots up to the guy at the chipper and gets her ears scratched. She sniffs the chipper and moves on up the path. The cheetahs watch closely, and when they see that Jessie doesn’t care squat about the chipper and that the chipper hasn’t leapt on Jessie, then they, too, proceed up the path — not happily, but they do what has to be done. And this is what Jessie’s relationship with the cheetahs is all about.
The cheetahs and the dog are four and a half years old, and they are under the direction of Kathy Marmack, animal-training supervisor at the zoo and director of the animal shows. She works with nearly 35 animals, all of which were hand reared after being rejected by their mothers or orphaned at a tender age. They are used to being around people. Kathy Marmack started at the zoo in 1976 as an animal handler. She is a tall, attractive woman whose light brown hair is coifed into an elaborate hairdo reminiscent of an exotic tropical bird.
Jessie came from the Escondido Humane Society and joined the cheetahs when they were all six months old. She bonded with Kimbunga immediately, and the two eat, sleep, and spend most of their time together. If Jessie has to be away, then Kimbunga makes chirping noises to summon her back. But the dog’s function is to tell the cheetahs that life and all its strangeness is okay. We should all have a pal like that.
Jessie has also helped rear an African leopard, two Bengal tigers, and a badger from South Dakota by the name of Orph. A number of zoos have used dogs to work with animals to put them at ease. The San Diego Zoo had a previous chee-tah-and-golden retriever couple that were together for about 15 years.
“The dog and the cheetah are good buddies, and the cheetah is dependent on Jessie,” Kathy Marmack tells me. “Kimbunga feels really, really comfortable when Jessie’s around. The other cheetah, Chobe, likes her too. When you let Jessie out of her enclosure in the morning, she always runs up to see Chobe first. She smashes up against the fence and he comes up and purrs in her face and they squish each other through the fence and talk. They’re buds. And the cheetahs are never rough with the dog. The dog’s the dominant one. And you know what? The dog is good, she understands. We used to have her play with one of our leopard cubs and they’d wrestle around and if the cub bit her too hard Jessie would say — You’re biting too hard. They’d mouth each other and run around on the hills and get goofy.
“Jessie’s made a huge difference in our enrichment activities, because the animals love the dog. She’s down on their level. She makes them feel like everything’s an adventure. There have been lots of cubs that became very fond of the dog, and they’d follow her around, which made their leash training easy. The dog would walk ahead and they’d follow right behind her. You could go anywhere — into offices, into crates so that (you could take) them into cars and vans. And the badger feels really comfortable having the dog around too. They go for walks and go digging together. And now Jessie’s become friends with the reindeer and they’re goofy as well. Golden retrievers don’t have so much of the watchdog tendencies of the other dogs. They’re happy to see anybody all the time. And those characteristics got passed off on the cheetahs. Our former dog was so much at ease no matter where she was that for the cheetah everything was okay. There wasn’t anyplace we couldn’t take him. I’m talking benefit fashion shows at the Sheraton — pitch black, walking down a 50-foot ramp in the dark with strobe lights, and the cheetah never even flinched.”
The idea of environmental enrichment for zoo animals has a somewhat complicated history. When I was a child, zoo animals lived in cages with concrete floors. This was done for reasons of hygiene. The concrete could be easily hosed off. And exotic animals seemed to have complicated immune systems. They were more susceptible to germs and infections than run-of-the-mill dogs and cats, and so hygiene was an important consideration.
The trouble was the animals didn’t seem happy. They paced back and forth and appeared depressed. And this was where the complications came in. Just who was unhappy? Were the animals really unhappy? Or were the zoo visitors unhappy because the animals were pacing back and forth (perhaps happily) on concrete slabs? Or was it the keepers who were unhappy since their jobs were not unlike the jobs of prison guards? And there was much disagreement on the subject of the emotional life of animals. Could they experience boredom and depression? Could they in fact feel? Or was that just human beings being anthropomorphic, that is, ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman creatures?
For a mixture of these reasons, new importance came to be placed on what was called the mental health of the animal, which meant that less importance was given to hygiene. Take for example the big-cat cages at the San Diego Zoo, which are some of the zoo’s oldest enclosures and were built in the 1930s by the WPA. They had concrete platforms that could be easily hosed off. In environmentally enriching the area for the big cats, the first thing to be done was to cover the concrete slabs with soil, creating hillsides. Now the jaguar droppings couldn’t be hosed off; they had to be picked up with a pooper-scooper. Bushes were planted, boulders were brought in, climbing structures were made with dead logs, scratching posts were hung from chains, rock work was done, pools and running streams were created. The cats were given places to hide. And this was only the beginning. Did you know that in one zoo the polar bears are given Prozac? It seems to work. They no longer chew their nails.
So Jessie, the golden retriever, is part of the enrichment program for the animals that appear in the San Diego Zoo animal shows.
“We want the animals to have something to do if we’re not working with them,” Kathy Marmack tells me. “For some animals, it’s hard to beat a cardboard box for having a good time. You try to find the enrichment that will stimulate the animal. For instance, we try to give the badger digging opportunities. The clouded leopards from Southeast Asia love rolling in sage, so we gather great armfuls for them. They love hand lotion and vanilla. When we had the two tiger cubs, we’d take them to a pumpkin patch at Halloween and they’d bounce around and play with the pumpkins. And we’d bring pumpkins home. In their enclosure, the cubs had a tub of water and they’d take a pumpkin and dip it in and out of the water and carry it around because they can sink their teeth into it and bat it around. Bordering the show area we have a moat, and the cubs would swim in the water with the pumpkin. They’d grab it with their paws and try to submerge it. They’d play for hours. We finally had to stop putting them in the water when they hit over 200 pounds.
“We get the cats like the clouded leopards these big balls called Boomer Balls. They won’t pop, and they come in different sizes. Even the reindeer has a ball to push around. We alternate them so they don’t have the same toys all the time and so they seem new to them when we give them back. Even things like tubs, they like to butt them, knock them around. You’ll put a log or a stump in there and they’ll rub on that or push it around. It’s enjoyable for the animals to have these things. They have these wonderful toys for horses which are hard plastic and uncrushable. A lot of them have a ring on them so you can hang them high enough so the animal can tap them. They’ll hit them and bop them. Llamas, reindeers, and horses, including zebras and wild horses, love them. They play with these things they can bop with their noses. They also have Boomer Balls, which they roll around. The llama will roll them around, and the reindeer does it all the time. Sometimes she’ll try to squash it with her foot, but the ball is virtually nondestructive. She’ll roll it all the way around the cage and run and come back and smack it again.
And they have toys for domestic dogs that work for us — like little cubes. You put food into them and the animals push the cube around and every once in a while a piece of food falls out for a treat. Or you can have hay or things like that, and we’ll scatter food treats in the hay and the animals kick through it, looking for the treats, and it takes more time, so they spend their day doing a lot of that kind of thing. I think these things affect their mental and physical health. We’ve experienced wonderful longevity in our animals. Our show animals have lived really long lives. We had a timber wolf that went to 15, a kangaroo that went to 24. Many of our animals are quite aged, but they keep going because they get the stimulation and enjoy the people.”
I wander around the zoo looking for signs of environmental enrichment. The trees, rocks, soil, and climbing structures in the enclosures are certainly examples. And a lot of the animals have Boomer Balls, though I see none being used.
Then I stop in front of the Alaskan brown bear, which is sitting up to its belly in a pond of water looking at the clouds. Half a dozen people are watching the bear. This is a large animal, and the informational sign says that the adult males can weigh over 1500 pounds.
“Wow,” says a woman to her friend, “how’d you like to weigh 1500 pounds?”
The friend, a young brunette who probably already weighs 200, is depressed by the thought. “It’s cute, though,” she says somewhat grudgingly.
The bear’s fur is brown with black smudges. A man says, “That’s one bad dye job.”
His girlfriend says, “Your highlights are streaking there, bub.”
Through this the bear keeps staring at the clouds. It won’t be distracted by small talk. Then a keeper appears on the rocks above the bear. He walks quietly and has something in his hand. Looking down, he tosses whatever he has toward the pond. It glitters like money. It’s a goldfish, about five inches long. The fish splashes in front of the bear and swims off through the water.
The bear is suddenly alert. In the way the Goodyear blimp can drift across the blue sky, so does the word “goldfish” drift across the brain of the bear. It plunges after the fish, misses, then plunges again. Now a dozen people are watching. Some cheer for the fish, some cheer for the bear. It’s not a very big pond but it’s a very quick fish. After all, the fish has terror on its side. The bear grabs the fish with two paws and the fish wriggles out and sparkles back through the air into the water. The bear, which a moment earlier had been somnolent and philosophical, is now all energy. The fish scoots between its legs and the bear falls over onto its back with a splash. People continue to cheer. This goes on for about ten minutes. The bear keeps catching the fish and the fish keeps slipping out of its big paws. At last the bear catches the fish, raises it to its mouth with two paws, and bites off the fish’s head.
“Aww," say several people.
The bear eats the fish quite daintily, taking little bites, even though the bear’s mouth is so big that even a basketball would present no problem. Once the fish has been eaten, the bear looks around for another, but there are no more.
A man says, “That’s it, buddy.”
The bear goes back to looking at the clouds and people drift away.
The goldfish has been part of the bear’s environmental-enrichment program. Nutritionally speaking, the goldfish is equal to what one piece of popcorn would be to you or me. It’s not even a snack, but it keeps the bear on its toes.
“The overriding reason for enrichment is that it makes sense," Gary Priest tells me. He is an applied animal behaviorist who is head of animal-behavior management at the zoo. He came to the zoo in 1984 and has been in charge of the environmental-enrichment program since 1991. He now has a large staff under his command, including Kathy Marmack and her animal trainers. He is a handsome man in his 40s, with perfectly groomed salt-and-pepper hair and a matching beard. He looks like one of the Beach Boys — not a particular face but a composite face—a Beach Boy who has grown up. We sit in his office, in which there are a variety of animal toys.
“As our technology in animal management develops,” he continues, “we’re moving from an era where the focus was just on being able to keep exotic animals healthy and alive to the mental well -being of the animal. Determining the animal’s mental state takes imagination, but most of it has to do with observation, and the things we look for in determining whether our animals are in what we would consider a healthy mental state are their appetite, their general behavior and disposition, and what are they doing with their time. Are they breeding, are they fighting, are they not fighting, are they exploring, are they active? just what’s the general demeanor of the animal? You have to make some educated guesses based on experience. Some behaviorists don’t want to admit it and it’s an area that’s hotly debated, whether animals have personalities. I personally believe that animals have very definite personalities. And 1 don’t think that’s being anthropomorphic — I think animals are smart enough to have personalities. They have likes, dislikes, and predispositions toward behaving one way versus another. So within the species you have that element as well, but again that’s debated within behaviorist circles — the B.F. Skinner guys would say that all animals are the product of what reinforces them, and the ethologists, on the other hand, would say that all animals are the product of genetic predisposition. I think the truth is someplace in the middle.”
I ask Gary Priest if animals can feel boredom.
“I guess I have a rough time even with that word because, as I’ve just said, we look for a whole variety of things to help us determine an animal’s attitude. The keys we focus on in our enrichment program are randomness and variety. We’ll take into consideration how the animal behaves in the wild. For an African lion, sleeping 20 hours a day is very normal. For a human, that would be signs of maybe depression. That’s what we have to avoid, making those kinds of transferences based on our behavior versus the animal’s. So we try to take into consideration the animal’s ethology — how does it behave in the wild, and what do we know from field research? What does it do to make a living, and what kinds of things might that animal encounter in its own habitat? What are the physical
and sensory capabilities of this animal? Bears have a very keen sense of smell, and so in our enrichment strategies we really try to vary the scents that go into their exhibit.”
I ask him if animals have emotions.
“Boy, you know, that’s a cutting-edge question. I have seen things with elephants that lead me to believe that at least with that species there are emotions. We had an elephant that died here, and one of the things that the keepers felt very strongly about was to allow all the other elephants to come in and basically say good-bye, because in the wild behavioral researchers have seen that kind of behavior, which would lead one to believe that there was an emotional attachment, recognition, sense of loss. This is real dangerous turf because we don’t know, we’re speculating. But, good grief, these are animals that live 60-plus years. The matriarch is usually the older and more experienced animal. She needs to be, because in times of drought she’s got to recall where the water holes are located. She’s the one that can lead the others to safety.
So for all of those reasons, why wouldn’t there be a sense of loss when one of the group passes away? The hard part for scientists is to not anthropomorphize, and yet it lends itself so well to it. There have been so many crackpots that 1 think a lot of legitimate scientific work is put off, because there are other things you can focus on and get answers to. Whereas this stuff, I don’t know if we’ll ever have answers. I don’t know how we would get those answers. We can’t even agree on what intelligence is in people. People can communicate back and forth: Are you depressed, don’t you feel well, what’s wrong? We can ask those questions of humans, we can’t of animals.”
I ask for examples of environmental enrichment. Priest mentions the Boomer Balls, climbing structures, and scratching posts and moves on to other items: a load of snow delivered to the polar bears, feathers on a stick to rivet the attention of the cats, peculiar scents discreetly placed in the bears’ enclosures, handfuls of raisins and sunflower seeds hidden for the gorillas. Indeed, many of the animals benefit from hidden treats.
“Our nutritionist, Dr. Mark Edwards,” says Priest, “is very aware of the fact that as these animals move through their territories in the wild they encounter different feeding opportunities — sometimes honey, sometimes not, sometimes chickens, sometimes feathers. So we have the flexibility to do that, and our forage warehouse is really something to see. We have live crickets, we have mealworms. Everything that animals eat, we provide here. There’s a market. Somebody out there is raising crickets that they sell to the zoo. We use 3200 pounds of mealworms a year. The forage budget is $700,000 a year. The daily average is about $2000 to feed 4000 animals, an average cost of 50 cents an animal. Five thousand rats a year, 2300 rabbits a year, for the snakes primarily; 111,000 pounds of frozen fish for the sea lions and polar bears. Can you imagine that grocery bill? Changing an animal’s diet can certainly be part of enrichment.
“We would expect to see increased birthrates with more mentally healthy animals. One of the major elements of the lives of these animals here in the zoo that is taken out is that the predators have been removed. And getting away from an animal that could potentially eat you occupies a certain amount of the animal’s time. We’ve completely removed that element. Something else which we can’t do much about is our climate. San Diego has a pretty mild climate. We don’t have the severe winters that some animals that live here biologically would expect. The Alaskan brown bear is a great example. We just don't get snow here. There’s not a whole lot we can do about that. So that’s another reason we feel so strongly about enrichment and those kinds of things that we can do. I’m sure there’s a connection between mental health and physical health.”
Then Priest shows me a few of his more exotic toys, some of which are only in the experimental stage and have yet to be employed. I see that beneath Priest’s scientific demeanor lurks a benign practical joker. The first is a laser light, like a penlight, which puts an intense red dot on the wall, floor, or wherever you point it.
“The big cats, like the lions, had no interest,” he tells me, “but the smaller cats chased it all over. You should try it at home with your dog. They love it.”
Then he takes out an eight-inch green plastic frog with an electric eye so when something passes in front of the frog, it goes “Ribbit, ribbit.”
“We can’t use this because the animals would tear it apart,” he says, “but we can make something like it.”
I think what a sudden “Ribbit, ribbit” would do to the Alaskan brown bear.
Next comes a little box that shoots out a spray of perfume every 15 seconds or for how often it is programmed. The current scent is honeysuckle, and soon the office smells very sweet.
“This would be good for the rain forest,” says Priest.
Next comes a contraption that resembles a small stork. It has a motion detector. Attach a hose to it and it shoots a quick blast of water at whatever passes in front.
“That should keep the tigers on their toes,” I say. Gary Priest smiles.
Last comes a ball about the size of a softball, with a thin rubber ring around the outside and a motor inside so the ball can roll itself, zigzagging in all directions.
“Can you imagine how the lions would react?” says Priest. “Of course, they could break it, so I’ve asked one of the guys in the shop to try to come up with a bigger, unbreakable model.”
Another day I walk around with Randall Herren, a senior keeper who has been at the zoo for ten years. He is in his early 40s, with rugged good looks. In terms of administration, the zoo has been broken into different areas, each run by a team made up of keepers, gardeners, buildings-and-grounds workers. Herren is part of Sun Bear Forest Team, which meets regularly to discuss the animals and has its own budget.
“My string includes Malayan sun bears, the cat walk, hornbills, porcupines, and squirrels, among others,” says Herren, glancing around his domain as if it were home.
I notice a Persian leopard hiding behind a rock at the top of its enclosure. Wherever Herren goes, the cat keeps an eye on him. I mention it.
“Oh, that’s Ian,” he says. “We got him from England. He’s in his midteens now. He’s got a cut on the inside of his thigh, and he’s got to go to the vet around noon. So I cut off his water this morning, and he knows that something’s up. That’s why he’s watching me.”
If I were to be anthropomorphic, I would say that Ian is expressing suspicion.
“Ian’s a real jokester,” Herren continues. “These animals seem to get something out of our reaction. Ian figured out the exact amount of time it took people to get from the gate to his cage. He’d be hiding and when he heard the gate squeak, he’d start running, but under the branches and low to the ground so no one would see him. Then, when whoever had come through the gate was just outside his cage, Ian would leave the ground and hit the fence face-high, right in front of these people, and hang there. Like, he’d been invisible before that moment. People would be terrified. He did it a number of times.” Herren chuckles benevolently.
We proceed along the walk to an enclosure about 30 by 40 feet with two black Brazilian jaguars. These animals make the cheetahs seem small. Faintly beneath their black fur, I can make out a pattern of spots. The jaguars don’t so much look at you as look across you, but in that glance they see all they need to see.
“Yesterday we hung out pieces of lamb carcass,” says Herren. “That’s when you see a jaguar behave like a jaguar.”
A large part of the enrichment program centers around eating, so each week the big cats have Carcass Days, Bone Days, and Rabbit Days when these items are hung out and the cats are allowed to practice their tearing, rending, and devouring skills.
The male jaguar is several years old and his name is Orson. The female, Anoche, is 16 and clearly Herren’s favorite. “I’m not saying that she’s more intelligent than the other cats, but there’s something about her...I guess 1 use the word ‘monkey’ loosely, but she’s always been a monkey cat to me—the way she moves, thinks. She’s actually mellowed in old age. She used to be very aggressive. When I first knew her, she broke off her canines threatening people, biting the fence. She used to sit there on her haunches, ears back, pounding on the door, wanting in. Looking like a primate.”
Herren coaxes both jaguars into the holding cages at the rear of their enclosure. He has a pail full of meat. After the animals have been secured, Herren enters their enclosure and begins making meatballs, which he hides behind rocks, in the branches of trees, on the ledges of a low cliff face, on the climbing structure, at the edge of the stream, on a branch hanging from a chain, on the tip of a stick that he shoves through the mesh of the cage about seven feet off the ground. I am reminded of when I used to hide Easter eggs for my kids. The jaguars, smelling the meat, roar dramatically. This is their first feeding of the day.
A small boy and his mother stand in front of the enclosure and watch Herren hiding the meatballs.
The boy asks Herren, “Are the jaguars out there now? Where’re the jaguars?”
The mother says to the boy, “You tell me, Bobby, why don’t they put the jaguars out while the man’s working in the cage?”
Bobby scratches his head. That’s a tough one.
Herren takes a dispenser of juniper cologne and sprays some branches. As he distributes the meatballs, he tells me that they had begun hiding the meat-balls several years earlier after he had noticed that Anoche was severely cutting down her activity.
“We’d seen some behavioral changes and body changes in the last year or so. We noticed that the only place she would jump in the exhibit was right here.” He gestures toward the ledge leading to the door to the holding pens in the back. The ledge is about four feet off the ground.
“It was almost pathetically funny. She’d do that particular jump, but almost anyplace else she’d stand up and sort of say, what the hell, and not bother. So we really started the meatball session here by the ledge so she could get them by standing up; maybe I’d put a meatball on a stick coming out from the fence. And I just started putting the meatballs higher and higher and she went for it. For a year and a half I watched her every time after I put out the meatballs, and those inherent cat things started coming out again. I wish I’d gotten a video of it. She got so she could jump almost all the way up the back wall, amazing stuff. I started doing a thing with a hanging log: I’d put a piece of bamboo on the top with two meatballs on the ends. And anytime Anoche had a level of frustration about not being able to get the meat-ball, she’d let me know — she’d go over and bite a plant or something and then I’d go out and make it easier. She was an easy one to read as far as wanting to play the game. I mean, my God, she wanted to play the game. The problem-solving she went through to finally figure out how to get those meatballs off that piece of bamboo was incredible. Her forte was getting ahold of the hanging log, putting a little English on it, then getting up on it and it would be rocking back and forth and then she would get on the climbing structure and prepare to jump, aiming at those meatballs on the bamboo stick. In the beginning days, she would just jump and flail and kind of knock it off, but then she got so gtxxl that she could pinpoint it right there, right where it was going to be, swinging back and forth, and jump and hit it exactly. All those sorts of things were evidence of her thinking process, her problem-solving.”
Herren climbs out of the enclosure and lets Anoche back in. She is distracted by the juniper perfume, sniffing and rubbing against it, then rolling in it just as the cheetah had rolled in the sage.
“Anoche loves catnip,” Herren tells me. “She rolls in it. She acts just like a domestic cat.”
The jaguar bumps the mesh of the enclosure, and the meatball attached to the stick above her slips off and falls on her head. Anoche jumps back, sniffs the meatball, eats it, then looks up as if hoping for another.
“That meatball fell from heaven,” says Herren.
Anoche begins hunting out the other meatballs, moving slowly and with great dignity. Her nose twitches. She leaps to the top of the climbing structure, then tightropes her way down a branch and plucks a meatball off the tip. She gives no sign of being an elderly cat. People gather to watch. Anoche scrambles about seven feet up the wall for another meatball.
“These cats are living at least twice as long here as they would in the wild,” says Herren, “but I can’t say it’s because of the enrichment program. A rule of thumb for cats in the wild is that they would live to be about eight years old, because they have parasites and dental problems. Any injury that won’t heal and they’re goners, because no one’s going to bring them food. Here they have vet care. But that’s why you see so much kidney failure among domestic cats and captive wild cats— they live a lot longer than their urinary apparatus was designed for because they have all that concentrated urine for marking. That’s what kills them.”
I ask Herren if he can tell me anything about the jaguars’ emotions. For instance, can they feel boredom.
“I don’t know for sure if they can feel boredom, because it’s one of those words. Like when people come up to me and say — I get this a lot — that jaguar doesn’t look happy because they’re pacing back and forth. In my opinion, he’s not unhappy doing that — that’s kind of a loaded word, too, like a happy jaguar — he’s guarding his territory. But I’ve been with both of these cats for a long time, and I think they’re pretty happy animals. Bears, on the other hand, tend to do certain things that from a human standpoint can be more disturbing. We have a sun bear that will cover a certain amount of ground, and it’s a fixed pattern over and over. There are different ways of looking at that. Some animals may be expressing their anxiety that way or working off metabolism.
“Sometimes a jaguar is aggressive toward me, and a visitor might ask if they are mean. I always have to say, we don’t think of them as mean. Do you mean aggressive? These human attributes are difficult to apply to animals. Boredom — I really don’t know. I remember one time going out and listening to some people at the warthog exhibit, and what I would hear 90 percent of the time vas, Oh, how ugly. And for me, I just can’t conceive of that. Koalas are cute and wart hogs are ugly — oh, I get it. And at that point I just started talking to people, and what I understood was that people just don’t know what to say. They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, aren’t those nodules on the face of the male warthog interesting.’ They’re not going to say that. So it’s important to me to convey to the public that we’re doing all we can. That’s why I’ve tried hanging out carcasses of meat every Tuesday morning. People really like that. For the cats, the stimulation is usually food-oriented. It really brings the cat out in them. These things must be okayed by the vet. Manure we can use or elephant dung, clean dung, oh the jaguars just love that, they’ll roll all over in it.
“My personal feeling is that the improved mental health of the animals affects their physical health, and for me, these enrichment programs came along at the right moment because I’ve been in the business a long time and there were years there when I didn’t know what to do. I mean, if you have a good primate setup, then it’s easy. The primates have companionship and get along with each other and so you don’t worry. But bears are the difficult ones. You can’t read them. They’re difficult in terms of trying to guess what they’re thinking and dealing with that. But the enrichment programs came along at the right time for me to feel like we’re doing something even for the bears. We’re really addressing what a lot of people have thought is important. When I was greener in the business, I didn’t know what to do and no one was telling me. Some people visiting the zoo will tell me to watch out for those animal rights activists. I tell them, I’m sorry, I’m an animal rights person. I’m interested in the welfare of animals. But we do what we can and it’s better than it was. It’s dealing with something in the animals’ behavior that we’re affected by watching, whether it’s pacing or something else. We try to get to the bottom of it and understand it.”
Talking to Herren, I see his love for the animals. After all, he is with them for most of their lives. They get to know him, and he knows their habits. They have definite personalities for him, although he accepts that perhaps he is being anthropomorphic. He doesn’t want to think that he is a jailer. The transformation of Anoche’s cage from bars and a flat concrete slab to a small habitat with rocks, trees, a small hillside, and running brook took a lot of work, and much of that work was done by the keepers. Herren wants his animals to be amused even if he isn’t sure what that means.
Most of the people working at the zoo have been there for many years, and all the people I spoke to were idealistic and had a great sense of mission.
“I’m an optimist,” Gary Priest had told me as we sat in his office with his plastic frogs and laser lights. “I can’t imagine what I would rather do with my life than this kind of work because I think we have an obligation and an opportunity unlike any other generation before. An animal that goes into extinction is gone forever, and anything we can do to learn about these animals and become better stewards of them and of their environment...” He paused as if struck by the enormity of the task. “Boy, we just can’t drop that ball.
“So it becomes part of our pleasure to keep the animals amused. That’s exactly right. It’s a real strong sense of accomplishment. The animals here are ambassadors for the ones in the wild. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be the need for zoos, but we don’t live in a perfect world. I’ve had the privilege of going to the Serengeti. I’ve been to Borneo and seen orangutans in their natural habitat. But the average person doesn’t get those opportunities, and part of our sense of obligation is to provide those opportunities and at the same time accomplish the very best care and treatment of these animals.
“We find that people, when they see the efforts we go to, realize that we share the same concerns that they have for the animals. We work here for the same reasons that people come here. It’s not a theme park — not to lambaste theme parks or anything else like that — but we operate like Disney or Universal Studios in that we are very business minded and profit orientated because every nickel that we make, beyond our operating expenses, goes into conservation programs and habitat preservation. We’re not for profit, but we operate like we are.”
But when I mildly suggest that the animals are not here by choice, Priest becomes defensive.
“As far as animals and territoriality, I guess 1 always struggle a little bit with it because all animals are territorial by nature. So by definition animals have boundaries in the wild. In the case of some bird species, it could be one tree. That’s their territory. So I think it’s very easy to become anthropomorphic and kind of say what is freedom to an animal. What is freedom to a human? I know I’m bound by territory. I live in Vista and my circuit is that I drive 42 miles every day to the zoo to my office, and I do some activities and then I go home. I think we’re all bound by territories, and animals are no different.”
Except, again, that the animals have no choice.
There is another reason for environmental enrichment. It’s good business practice. Priest told me about a study conducted at half a dozen zoos that showed that visitors stayed an average of 15 seconds in front of a cage when there was no environmental-enrichment activity.
“We tried to duplicate the study,” said Priest, “and got about the same results. Then we did the same study with those animals in the environmental-enrichment program. We did six weeks’ worth of data collection and found that visitors would stay about 30 minutes in front of an enclosure, which created a whole new set of problems — basically crowd management and traffic problems — but they were positive problems.”
The environmental-enrichment program makes the zoo a more popular place. It brings in more visitors and more money.
The zoo is always in the process of modernizing the exhibits, but two of the most modern and successful exhibits are the gorillas and polar bears. The gorilla troop of six adults, two adolescents, and a baby have half an acre of trees, rocks, streams, duplicating their natural habitat. The polar bears have about two acres, which include a 130,000-gallon freshwater pool, 12 feet deep and chilled to 55 to 60 degrees.
The huge window in the exhibit room shows the pool from beneath the surface. Four of the bears are adolescents, not quite three years old, though each must be over 400 pounds. They leap into the pool, cannonballing one another and wrestling underwater. One perfects flip turns, gliding through the water to a rock face 12 feet away, flipping, coming back, rising over 6 feet out of the water, hitting the window with his rear paws, and shoving off. Another bear creeps along the edge, then leaps on the swimmer’s head. This goes on for hours, and the room is packed with people watching and applauding. There are squeals of laughter.
“Wouldn’t you like to swim like that?” a mother asks her son.
“Are they roughhousin’?” asks the boy.
“Silly bears,” says his sister.
If I were to be anthropomorphic, I would say the bears are having fun.
An attractive woman with a British accent says, “I wonder if the people who designed this exhibit knew what the bears were going to do.”
But outside, another group is looking across the pool to the rocks in front of the cliff face where a polar bear is pacing. The bear goes forward three steps, then back three steps, over and over. It looks like a dance: the Polar Bear Trot. The bear’s head hangs down as if looking at the ground. 1 time the bear, but after an hour of pacing I give up. The people watching are upset.
“That bear looks unhappy,” says one man.
“That bear looks nuts,” says his wife.
Another woman seems to get angry. “This isn’t good enough for him. Why should he be getting bored in a nice place like this?”
Her friend disagrees. “It’s frustration — the poor animal’s cooped up in a teenie-weenie space. They’re used to traveling a hundred miles a day.”
And so the pleasure these people took in watching the young bears leaping on each other in the water becomes modified. There’s a wrinkle in paradise.
On another day I talk to an associate veterinarian, Meg Sutherland-Smith, on the effect of the environmental-enrichment program on the animals’ mental health. But Dr. Sutherland-Smith doesn’t like the word “mental.”
"I have a hard time commenting on an animal’s mental health, because that’s something that people use in discussing animals but it’s hard for us to measure. It’s not like we can sit down with an animal and talk to it and ask it, ‘How’re you feeling?’ as you would when doing a psychological or psychiatric exam on a person. You’re taking characteristics that people use and that people are familiar with and you’re applying them to animals. We say, Oh, is an animal happy, is it sad, is it this or is it that? You’re getting into more philosophical kinds of issues. I guess being a veterinarian and seeing things from more of a scientific standpoint, I don’t apply a lot of emotions to animals, and when I do so, I’m doing it anthropomorphically, by being a person.
“If you get down to whether something is beneficial or not for the animal, then you have to have a way to quantitate it. You can beat around the bush about a lot of intangible things — how do you quantitate whether an animal is actually better or not? There are tangible things we can say that environmental enrichment does for the animals in terms of their health, and it has to do with their physical health. By doing the environmental enrichment, we’re able to increase an animal’s activity. By increasing their activity, you’ve got an animal that’s more physically fit. You saw some of the carnivore enrichment. The keepers are constantly giving the animals things to tear apart, things to chew on. The tearing apart helps to keep their nails worn, so we don’t have problems with overgrown nails. And some of the chew toys are actually items they use with dogs to help with oral health to keep healthy gums. So those are what I can say are the definite tangible health benefits. By giving the animals things to do that help keep their nails worn and help improve oral hygiene, that keep their dental health better — yes, that is absolutely benefiting an animal. But I have a hard time being able, from a scientific standpoint, to talk about their mental health.”
I wonder how Dr. Sutherland-Smith would respond to Gary Priest’s green electric frog going “Ribbit, ribbit” as the lion passed in front of it. But for the lion to leap ten feet in the air would clearly increase the lion’s physical activity.
A goldfish tossed to an Alaskan brown bear guarantees a crowd, so does a lamb carcass strung up for the jaguars. On my way out of the zoo, I watch a big Dali sheep nudging a Boomer Ball with its nose.
A woman watching says to her husband, “Look at the horns on that one. You’d think they’d be heavy on its head, wouldn’t you, Frank?”
Frank sees me writing something on my pad. “You a monitor?” he says to me. “You’re writing something. You must be a monitor.”
I tell him I’m not a monitor. We go back to watching the sheep amuse itself.
Then I see a small boy wearing a blue Padres cap hopping up and down in front of a small antelope, trying to get its attention. I wander over. Haifa dozen people watch. The boy bangs into a tree and falls down. He starts to cry, more a cry of indignation than pain. “That’s what you get for belly dancing in front of the tourists,” says his father. “Didn’t I tell you not to belly dance in front of tourists?”
Lying on his back, the boy continues to yell and stamp his feet. Now ten people watch him. The small antelope sticks its head over the fence to discover just what sort of creature is making so much noise. For a moment, the boy becomes part of the antelope’s environmental-enrichment program. The animal has become engaged. Indeed, now 15 people are watching. One man scratches his scalp, another scratches his belly. Humans and antelope alike shake their heads. The boy has become part of the environmental-enrichment program of us all.
— Stephen Dobyns
Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of 9 volumes of poetry and 19 novels, the most recent Saratoga Strongbox (Penguin Putnam).