Big Cat Enrichment at Big Cat Rescue

Some wild cats eat paper so we have alternate delivery options for them:

Watch another video of our enrichment HERE.

Enrichment Adds Quality to Life

Bobcat Enrichment (photos are from pumpkin enrichment)

At Big Cat Rescue, the volunteers formed a committee to focus on the development of appropriate enrichment for the animals in our care. When using different enrichment techniques, the animals can be stimulated to investigate and explore their surroundings. This can be accomplished by presenting novel food items (or presenting food in different ways), as well as novel objects and smells. The presentation of new items and scents can help relieve boredom and improve the overall welfare of the animals. The committee decided to focus our enrichment on trying to encourage increased natural behaviors in our captive cats.

Being a sanctuary to approximately 100 cats we had to decide exactly where to start. As a committee we determined the easiest
way to approach our task was one species at a time. We started with our bobcats for a number of reasons. We are home to a significant number of them (over 40) at a wide range of ages. Also, they represented a variety of backgrounds. Some were pets, some came from fur farms, some were hand-raised and some came from the wild.

For our study of bobcats and enrichment, we used the SPIDER model, which was
presented by staff from Disney’s Animal Kingdom at a recent conference attended by some our our volunteers. SPIDER stands for Setting Goals, developing a Plan, Implementation, Documentation, Evaluation, and Readjustment. This presented a simple and organized system for us to follow.

The committee then used a list of questions to research bobcat behavior in the wild. These questions related to their hunting techniques and prey, territories and markings, threats, interactions with other animals as well as other observations. We also reviewed the histories of our current bobcat population and examined their enclosures. We investigated what bobcats did in their natural environment and then brainstormed ways to try to encourage and recreate those behaviors in their enclosures here.

From our research, we were able to target a number of behaviors that we wanted to encourage with our bobcats. These included grooming, water play, sunning, climbing and denning. When the committee developed ideas to recreate these behaviors, the ideas were then submitted to our staff and veterinarian for further approval. (It is important to consider individual health issues for each cat when determining the appropriateness of different types of enrichment.) These steps covered the goal setting and planning part of our model. Next came the fun part, the implementation!

For grooming, we used scents that we could spray into their enclosures. We used star anise and vanilla steeped in water. We then put the scented water into squirt guns and sprayed logs and trees in the bobcat habitats. (Just a note: the star anise was much more popular than the vanilla.) The bobcats would usually find the scent and either roll around or rub against the area we had sprayed. We found that when multiple bobcats were housed in the same enclosure, they would often start to groom each other as well. This was probably one of our more successful enrichment goals and it was fun to watch the responses of the cats.

They loved it!

During our research, we discovered that bobcats will sometimes spend time in the water. We purchased a galvanized tub that was large enough for the bobcats to play in, but small enough to be easily moved from cage to cage. The tub was placed inside an enclosure and was filled with a few inches of water. We found that some of our bobcats really enjoyed splashing around and investigating the water.

We also wanted to find ways to encourage our bobcats to sun themselves and climb, which were other natural behaviors that we studied. This involved examining our current enclosures. We had to determine which cages naturally had
rocks and logs in sunny spots or trees for climbing and if or how we could improve or change the others. We used scented treats in the higher spots of their enclosures to encourage them to climb. The bobcats seemed to enjoy this as well. We did note, however, that on our types of cage wire, the cats that were clawed sometimes had difficulty climbing the cage itself. We restricted any treats on the cage itself to cats that were declawed.

Our research also revealed that bobcats will often create temporary dens. To encourage this behavior, we placed large boxes in their enclosures. The boxes had holes in them large enough for the cats to enter. The results of this were mixed. Some of our bobcats loved them (although they did not necessarily use them for dens) and some of them were not interested.

After each implementation of enrichment, we evaluated our successes and failures, determined what changes we needed to make and sometimes tried again (the readjustment part of the model). The adjustments we made were noted above.

As far as documentation, we decided the easiest way for us to record our enrichment was to make a list of all of our animals. When one of our volunteers gives an animal enrichment, the date and type of enrichment is logged on the list. The lists are updated monthly.

The enrichment committee at Big Cat Rescue has found this model to be helpful in organizing, researching and documenting our progress. We have learned so much more about our animals through this process and with that knowledge, feel like we can give them better care while they are with us. We hope you can use some of the information we have shared here.

Former Volunteer, Carolyne Clendinen

Enrichment Ideas

ENRICHSAM.JPG (137162 bytes)Reactions ran from leaping, pouncing, rubbing, drooling, spraying, guarding and eating the pumpkins.  Like most things, the best things in life are free.

These were some of the ploys used by zoo keepers across America to entertain captive cats. Our Volunteers  implement them here for our animal’s enjoyment.

  • Laser Mouse: The red pin light pointing device. The cats will chase this thing anywhere, just don’t point it in their eyes. Even during the day, the beam is bright enough to catch their attention.
  • All Spice or just about any other cooking spice will “spice” up an old toy or cause the cat to rub all over a log of specific spot.  Ask for outdated stuff at groceries or spice dealers.
  • Catnip
  • Cantaloupe, coconut, apples in water bucket
  • Use yogurt containers to make blood- cicles for the cats to lick in the heat. Use bucket forms to make them for the Tigers. You can get plenty of blood at food prep at 7 pm each night.
  • Move their cage furniture around to make things more interesting, just be careful not to make an escape route.
  • Do not use staples, tape, wire or string in making permanent cage toys.
  • Pinecones, dipped in blood with meat chips smushed in are great amusement, but not on Mondays as the cats might be hungry enough to eat the cone.
  • Civet poop is very aromatic. Have a sample tested by the vet to make sure there are no parasites to pass along.
  • Pumpkins full of crickets. The crickets will hang out in the pumpkin for food and the cats will have fun chasing them if they don’t. Use natural vine to hang chicken wings so that the cat can pretend to capture it’s food. Be careful that the cat cannot hang it’s self. Tape recorder playing bird calls sealing in a plastic ball. Geoffroy cats, put their litter boxes as high up as you can as they use trees in the wild.
  • Astroturf, outside Lemur cage, but within reach. Spread with peanut butter and let them pick at it all day. Be sure to wash thoroughly.
  • Toilet paper rolls make great places to hide treats for cats, lemurs, civets, coati etc…
  • Training dummies soaked in hunting scents, like rabbit and grouse, hung from heavy duty plastic chains, at just above nose height, will keep

The animals enclosure should supply them with ongoing things to do.

Above right, Pisces, the Fishing Cat catches a fish in his stocked pond.

All tigers should have access to a pool.  Three of our tigers have access to a lake in which they can swim.  11 of our tigers retired here in their golden years and had never had the opportunity to swim, so shallow cooling pools were created for them to insure they didn’t drown.  Their pools over look the lake and have pumps that keep the water from the spring fed lake circulating through the pool and then back to the lake via a water fall.  This creates a nice atmosphere in which the cats can lounge at the lake’s edge and dream about the swans and ducks they could catch.

A very inexpensive way to amuse cats for hours is to use paper towel, toilet paper and fabric tubes to hold various meats that aren’t the cats typical fare.  The tubes are sometime sprayed with perfumes, or marinated in spices.  All of our volunteers collect these card board tubes and save them up for enrichment days.  One of our supporters, Kay King has a fabric related company and donates the fabric tubes for the larger cats.  Photo by Anissa Camp of Mary Ann Reeds hands.

The cats will spend hours carrying the tubes around as if they caught the “prey” themselves.  They roll on them, drool on them and eventually shred them to pieces to get to the good stuff inside.  This stimulates all of their natural predatory instincts and provides a safe form of amusement.  Photo by Anissa Camp of Shadow the Western Cougar sniffing his tube to see what the mystery treat of the day is.

Enrichment on a Budget

Being a non-profit sanctuary poses several obstacles for enrichment activities.  Many resources, primarily money and time, are extremely limited.  Volunteers are required to wear multiple hats to ensure a safe and healthy life for our animals.  To add enrichment activities to the exhausting cleaning, maintenance, and fund raising was a daunting prospect.  But despite the struggle, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL has implemented a successful enrichment program.

Many of the enrichment types we utilize have already been mentioned in several places, so this article will focus more on how we’ve implemented the program, giving some insight into the challenges we faced.

One of the first actions taken was to determine what enrichment activities absolutely could not be accomplished.  Mimicking foraging and other food-based enrichments are usually major activities at large institutions.  We see the benefit of such projects, but are not able to implement any for our carnivores.  Due to the fact that all animals are housed outside in Florida weather, mealtime comes just before
dusk for all meat-eaters.  Any other feeding time would run the risk of increasing our bug and parasite populations.  Another negative aspect is that the volunteers who prepare meals are not always the ones overseeing enrichment, so there is room for error in diet.

Instead, bite-sized “treats” are used in food-puzzles or as motivation to inspect a new object.  Using frozen fish for enrichment has proven very successful.  We feel that because fish is not an item used in our regular diet preparation, it is a novelty itself.  Frozen fish purchased by the bag is inexpensive, and the long shelf life helps with our time constraints.  A common use of food in our enrichment program is to hide a piece of smelt inside a paper towel roll with the ends curled in.  We’ve received positive responses from Cougars (Felis concolor), Servals (Felis serval), Caracals (Felis caracal), as well as Binturongs (Arctictis Binturong) and African Civets (Civettictis civetta).

After determining what enrichment activities were unsuitable for our program, we then brainstormed the ease of implementing the activities left on the table.  It may seem that the animals are being short-changed by our realistic approach, eliminating very effective and useful activities.  But it is our careful thinking and knowledge of how the sanctuary must be run every day that allows the program to continue and flourish.

After all the planning, we ended up with a selection of easy to implement, use and monitor activities to enrich all of the species (over 25!) at the sanctuary.  Many of the materials needed can be saved from the trash (yogurt cups make the perfect size bloodcicle to fit through our cages).  We modified projects that required purchasing items to use things that were cheap and easily available.  For example, a project that intrigued us was to cut holes in a gourd and stuff it with liverwurst.  Gourds are seasonal and can be expensive, so we modified the activity to use potatoes.  An apple corer is  used lengthwise on the potato, and then the left over center can be used to either plug the potato, adding a level of difficulty to the activity, or the center is rolled in sweet basil and pumpkin spice and given to our Geoffroy’s cats (Felis geoffroyi).  The Geoffroy’s have shown much more response to olfactory stimulation than any other toy or food.

What ties our enrichment program together is a database where all activities are recorded.  This database tracks the date, species, name, enrichment type, and the animal’s reaction.  The species, animal name, and enrichment type are fields that must be chosen from lists.  We are alerted when an attempt is made to add an item to these lists.  This gives us an opportunity to realize something new has occurred and we should discuss it with the rest of the group.

Besides reports on all the animals, the database can search on any of the first four fields (date, name, species, enrichment type).  This allows for all sorts of questions to be answered.  In an instant, we can learn who received enrichment last, what types of enrichment a certain species has responded to and how, as well as take a look at individual cases.

In particular, we have many cougars that were privately owned and truly enjoy human company.  While this is an added bonus to help care for them, they often prefer the enrichment volunteer to the enrichment activity.  It is extremely useful to have at our fingertips an individual history on each cougar of what has been offered them and how they have responded.

Big Cat Rescue houses approximately 100 animals on 69 acres.  With volunteers undertaking the daily workload, starting an enrichment program seemed impossible.  But with careful planning before implementation and the open communication of the database, we have logged hundreds enrichment activities and have seen wonderful reactions from all of our animals.  Now that the initial hurdles have been conquered, we are taking steps to implement some of the more labor-intense enrichment activities previously discarded.

Tiger playing in the water
Tiger playing in the water

By Jessica Hosford

We are avid readers of The Shape of Enrichment.

This may just be the perfect enrichment picture.  Conan, a retired circus tiger, enjoying life on Easy Street in his 2000+ square foot Cat-A-Tat with earthen floors, real plants, trees, leaves and grass, a waterfall, pool with boomer ball, two white swans swimming by the outside (top center) and a box full of enrichment goodies.  What a life!

The Ice Hasn’t Melted in Florida Yet

Below is enrichment made by Big Cat Rescue volunteers.  Mice in ice blocks, swings in the shade and cool rock dens are all ways the cats of Big Cat Rescue can endure the summer heat.

This was a great day of enrichment for a few of the cats.  Obviously, Moses and Ana really do love their swing.  I found them on it in the morning when I arrived and pointed that out to all the guests on the tour when they were still hanging up there together.

Although Apollo and Zeus really could have cared less about their block of ice (ironic since they’re Siberians, huh?), Shadow was another story.  He was still working on that block of ice at night when we were there to feed him.  As food aggressive as he is, can you believe he didn’t even come to lockout to eat?  He was still working on that rat in the ice and it had been hours already.  Sugar had only been mildly interested, but was really much happier to be able to eat her dinner in peace while the beast just kept licking his icicle.

It gives us such a good feeling to see them enjoying themselves this much.

Check out another Enrichment Video here: https://bigcatrescue.org/enrichment-program-big-cat-rescue/

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  1. Good info and straight to the point. I am not sure
    if this is in fact the best place to ask but do you folks have any
    ideea where to hire some professional writers?
    Thank you 🙂

  2. I am curious how this is different from what you are fighting. Are your cats being released into the wild or are you making money off of them like you claim others are. So curious how you are different besides convincing people to work for free.

    1. Big Cat Rescue is an accredited sanctuary. We rescue big cats from abused, abandoned, neglected situations. Those cats confiscated by law enforcement and retired from performing acts. Cats born in captivity can never go free. It is not legal for one thing. BigCatRescue.org/gofree explains more. We do rehab and release native Florida bobcats in our rehab and release program. Our goal is to see all big cats live free but until laws are changed there will be those who breed big cats in captivity for profit. Big Cat Rescue is a non profit organization and 100% of our donations go to the cats. It costs about $3.5 Million/year to care for the cats including food and vet care. You can find all of our finance records at BigCatRescue.org/finance. We have the highest rating at CharityNavigator.org. Our volunteers care for the cats just as people volunteer at animal shelters, churches, for boys and girls club, and other non profit organizations around the world. Learn all about us at BigCatRescue.org

  3. I saw that the cats were having difficulty getting gnashers into the water melons if you made little holes on the water melons so I think it would be easier to split them.

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