Tigers paint as enrichment at N.C. zoo

Zoo animals are wild about painting
 
Thursday, November 13 (updated 4:56 pm)
By Christina Cooke
Special to Go Triad
 
GREENSBORO – Not all painters are motivated by the promise of raw meat. But for Kisa, the female tiger at the Natural Science Center of Greensboro, it’s inspiration enough for a masterpiece.
 
On a recent Friday afternoon, the 300-pound cat padded through the bright orange tempura squirted across the floor of her concrete-block house. Then, as she approached the chain-link fence to accept a food reward from a stick, she placed a paint-soaked paw on the canvas at her feet.
 
“Good giiiiirl, Kisa,” said zookeepers Amanda Schuch and Jenny Dvorak, reloading the feeding stick and rotating the canvas to put a different edge in the cat’s path.
 
Kisa chewed, rumbling from deep within.
 
Schuch said the big cat always enjoys painting, regardless of how good the canvas looks when she’s through.
 
“She always enjoys it because she gets human interaction, she gets food, and she gets to feel the texture of the paint, which is cool to the touch,” Schuch said after releasing Kisa back into the exhibit. “She didn’t want to leave, that’s how much she enjoyed it.”
 
The science center staff started painting with several of their zoo animals this summer using nontoxic paint that is harmless if it’s ingested. The project is part of a comprehensive enrichment program designed to keep the animals moving, thinking and interacting with their keepers.
 
Not all the animals have gotten into it, the keepers said. During their first painting sessions, the meerkats ran in circles around the canvases, the howler monkeys seemed suspicious of their materials, and the lemurs just weren’t that interested.
 
The tigers, coatimundis and anteater, however, are prolific artists and often fill entire canvases with foot, face and tongue marks.
 
So far, the science center has sold three paintings – including a tiger piece for $550 in an online auction – and put all proceeds back into the enrichment program. The staff eventually hopes to amass a body of work large enough to start selling paintings in the science center’s Thesaurus Shoppe.
 
Science center Executive Director Glenn Dobrogosz said he sees the activity as valuable for every party involved.
 
“The whole process is good for the keepers, it’s good for the animals, and the visitors seem to like it,” Dobrogosz said. “I have seen fabulous products coming out of this. You never know what to expect.”
 
WHY ENRICH?
 
In the wild, animals stay busy with exploring, foraging, hunting and protecting what’s theirs. In captivity, however, they have limited space, regular meals, medical attention and no predators. In other words, a lot less stimulation and a lot more spare time.
 
Zookeepers at the Natural Science Center provide each of their animals with one to three enrichments a day to prevent them from falling into unhappy zoo animal behaviors, like pacing or overgrooming.
 
“We stimulate change in their environment and always keep them busy and active, always keep them thinking,” Dvorak said. “We don’t ever want to just go and hand a perfectly cut up piece of fruit right to them. We want to make them work for it to give them something to do.”
 
Keepers might hide the meerkats’ food under bits of straw so the animals have to forage for it or give the lemurs strawberries frozen inside chunks of ice. They might leave a scented tarp in the anteater’s enclosure or place sheep shearings, oversized balls or fun-to-destroy traffic barrels in the tiger exhibit.
 
Zoo curator Peggy Ferebee said it’s interesting to see animals’ intelligence levels demonstrated as they tackle the various activities.
 
Gibbons can take apart puzzles and unscrew lids from jars quite easily, she said. “The lemurs, bless their hearts, are not quite in that high IQ level. They’re lucky if they can figure out how to unwrap a folded-over paper bag.”
 
The first step in painting with Bear, the male coatimundi, is getting rid of your keys, explained zookeeper Kristin Dayvault outside the animal’s enclosure.
 
Hearing the rattling “turns him into Cujo, basically,” she said. “Something clicks in their brains, and they just run right at you.”
 
Once inside the coatimundi exhibit, Dayvault laid two sheets of paper on the grass. She filled one with squirts of red, blue, green and yellow paint and left the other blank. Then, using pieces of egg as an incentive, she led the raccoon-like creature back and forth between the palette and the easel.
 
“He’ll do anything for a hardboiled egg,” she said.
 
Bear followed Dayvault enthusiastically for about five minutes before he tired of the activity and started tackling the bottles of paint in the grass nearby. A streak of red ran the length of his tail. His thighs were green.
 
Dayvault said Bear is one of her favorite animals in the zoo, and she works with him every day.
 
“Any time we interact together, and it’s positive for him, it strengthens our bond,” she said.
Painting with the zoo animals increases their comfort level with humans, which in turn improves the keepers’ ability to provide care, Ferebee said.
 
“The more comfortable we make the animals, the more pleasant their overall environment is going to be,” she said. “When you walk in to clean, you’re not frightening, you’re part of their daily routine, and that makes it much easier for everyone.”
 
The Natural Science Center is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and enrichment is central to standards it requires for accreditation.
 
In addition to renovating its zoo area and acquiring a new collection of animals over the last four years, the Science Center has integrated animal enrichment into the daily routines of its zookeepers, Dobrogosz said.
 
Dvorak and her coworkers spend up to an hour and a half each day enriching the animals, and they give presentations to the public three times a day in the zoo area.
 
“When I truly believe an animal in my care is relaxed and content in its exhibit, that’s absolutely the best part of being a zookeeper,” Dvorak said.
 
ANIMALS AT WORK
 
The first step in painting with Bear, the male coatimundi, is getting rid of your keys, explained Zookeeper Kristin Dayvault outside the animal’s enclosure.
 
Hearing the rattling “turns him into Cujo, basically,” she said. “Something clicks in their brains, and they just run right at you.”
 
Once inside the coatimundi exhibit, Dayvault laid two sheets of paper on the grass. She filled one with squirts of red, blue, green and yellow paint and left the other blank. Then, using pieces of egg as incentive, she led the raccoon-like creature back and forth between the palette and the easel.
 
“He’ll do anything for a hardboiled egg,” she said.
 
Bear followed Dayvault enthusiastically for about five minutes before he tired of the activity and started tackling the bottles of paint lying in the grass nearby. A streak of red ran the length of his tail. His thighs were green.
 
Dayvault said Bear is one of her favorite animals in the zoo, and she works with him every day.
 
“Any time we interact together, and it’s positive for him, it strengthens our bond,” she said.
Painting with the zoo animals increases their comfort level with humans, which in turn improves the keepers’ ability to provide care, Ferebee said.
 
“The more comfortable we make the animals, the more pleasant their overall environment is going to be,” she said. “When you walk in to clean, you’re not frightening, you’re part of their daily routine, and that makes it much easier for everyone.”
 
In addition, if an animal is accustomed to cooperating, keepers are less likely to have to use narcotics or nets to carry out medical procedures, she said.
 
The keepers say painting with the animals is a constant exercise in trial and error. The first time they tried painting with Kisa, Dvorak recalls, she and Schuch used a piece of  posterboard they found in the museum’s supply closet.
 
“We got a couple of cool prints, but she basically just shredded the paper,” Dvorak said.
 
Since then, the keepers have improved their techniques with all the animals, and they plan to continue fine-tuning – though they avoid painting with animals more than once a month to prevent them from growing bored with the activity.
 
Dobrogosz said the Natural Science Center is fortunate to be able to offer its animals such a thorough enrichment program.
 
“In these tough economic times, you sometimes have to buckle down and get just the basic work done,” Dobrogosz said. “But in my opinion, enrichment is the basic work. The animals are owed it.”
 
Christina Cooke is a freelance contributor. Contact her at xtinacooke@yahoo.com.
 
http://www.news-record.com/content/2008/11/13/article/animals_put_noses_to_the_canvass
——-
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org
 
 
How much did you like this?

Tags:

  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

You May Also Like

Pet Supplies That Support Big Cats

Want to help Big Cat Rescue AND get great pet supplies?  Visit www.petsuppliestampa.com, the ...

Cool vs Cruel

Choose compassion in your fashion. How much did you like this?

Qeshm-Circus

UK Bans Use of Wild Animals in Circus Acts

Victory in the campaign to ban circus animals Government concedes defeat after bribes and ...