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COVER STORY : Enriching the Game Plan : The L.A. Zoo's staff and volunteers are toying with stark environments in an attempt to recreate the animals' experiences in the wilds.

October 21, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Staffer Thaya du Bois has a mischievous smile on her face as she climbs into an electric tram at the Los Angeles Zoo.

"I have some disgusting things in the can, and I thought we might try those with the tigers," she says.

Du Bois, the zoo's assistant director of research, is a woman with a mission. She wants to enrich the lives of the zoo's captive animals by making their habitats more natural and filling up their senses with more sights, smells and tactile experiences. Given the city's bare-bones budget for the zoo, du Bois doesn't have much money to work with. But she does have a vivid imagination and several dozen dedicated volunteers. And, on this particular morning, she has a coffee can filled with vials of scent, including a particularly pungent eau de wolverine.

Du Bois hands the feral perfumes over to Bertie Foster, veteran keeper of big cats. Like du Bois, Foster is a firm believer in something called behavioral or environmental enrichment, a practice at more and more zoos worldwide that seeks to better the lives of animals in captivity by giving them more things to do, especially things they do in the wild. Du Bois instituted the zoo's behavioral enrichment program in 1990.

As du Bois explains, animals in older zoos such as Los Angeles' often spend their days in stark, sterile environments, with concrete underneath and little to stimulate them. It's no wonder, given the poverty of their daily lives, that the caged beasts pace or doze away the day.

Eventually, Los Angeles hopes to have a state-of-the-art zoo in which enrichment will be built into dynamic, naturalistic exhibits, including such amenities as a wave machine that will allow the polar bears to dive in the surf.

But, meanwhile, du Bois and her volunteers are practicing "remedial enrichment," trying to better the animals' experience now, by giving them things to play with, encouraging them to forage for at least some of their food and improvising other ways to keep them busy and engaged. As du Bois explains, her work is grounded in her scientific knowledge of animal behavior, but it also requires her to enter imaginatively into the minds of her charges. "I try to get into an animal's head," she says, "and see how it experiences the world, and we try to recreate that as much as we can."

Which brings us to the tigers and the perfumes. As du Bois and tiger keeper Foster know, wild tigers live surrounded by the scents of hundreds of other animals. So when du Bois arrives with her cache of smells, Foster picks a perfume she likes--one that simulates the musk of a Siberian deer--and dabs it at various spots on the pile of logs that lie in the center of the tiger pit.

The pile of logs is itself an example of behavioral enrichment. For years, the zoo's Siberian tigers--a pair of 11-year-old sisters--paced back and forth on an easy to clean but dull and forbidding expanse of concrete. But in 1993 the exhibit was renovated. A waterfall was added--with the wall behind it carefully pitched forward and built without paw-holds so the tigers couldn't use it to escape. Dirt was trucked in to soften the surface beneath the cats, then planted with grass, bamboo and other vegetation that the cats can rub against, hide behind, dig up, or gnaw on.

After Foster applies the musk scent to the woodpile, she hides a couple of dead rabbits under the logs. A few minutes later, she releases the cats from the behind-the-scenes cages where they have spent the night. The first thing they do is sniff the logs, rubbing the scent glands in their own cheeks against the new smells they have discovered. Foster explains that the two cats will often mark the area as well. "They back up and urinate on it," she says.

According to Foster, the presence of new scents in their habitat always seems to increase the interaction between the two animals.

"Sensory deprivation and lack of behavioral and social opportunities have been the basic deficits" for animals in older zoos, says Tim Desmond, an animal-behavior consultant based in Ventura. David Shepherdson, one of the founders of the behavioral enrichment movement and a research coordinator at the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Ore., agrees, arguing that smell and hearing are among the most neglected senses of zoo animals. Smell and hearing, he says, "tend to be ignored, because we know less about what those worlds mean to the animals."

The tigers catch the scent of the perfume before they smell the rabbits. In the wild, the cats would spend part of every day hunting for food. Although they were fed their carefully balanced conventional diet the night before, they sniff around until they find the hidden prey. A group of schoolchildren watches from above as Indira digs up a clump of grass and hides her find under it before she settles down to devour the rabbit.

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