University of Cincinnati Students Create Innovative Enrichment for Animals at the Cincinnati Zoo

Posted May 20, 2019

New course benefits tigers, giraffes, penguins, hornbills, students and Zoo staff!

CINCINNATI (May 20, 2019) –  The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden continually seeks to provide novel and innovative enrichment experiences for its animals and looks for opportunities to engage people in its community. To address both objectives, the Zoo partnered with the University of Cincinnati to develop a course that challenged students to design and build enrichment items that would stimulate animals, encourage natural behaviors, and educate guests.

“The first step in the process was for animal staff members to familiarize students with the natural histories of the animals they would be working to engage,” said Cincinnati Zoo’s Animal Excellence Manager David Orban, who developed and co-led the course that ended last week. “Student teams then observed the animals in their habitats to learn about their abilities and activities and came up with ideas to create devices that would encourage exercise or other desired behaviors.”

The students in each group brought a variety of skill sets. Majors included communications, biology, industrial design, mechanical and biomedical engineering, and even finance! Course designers hoped that including perspectives from different disciplines would produce fresh approaches to animal enrichment.

“That certainly happened!  The student teams thought outside the box to create a self-service shower for rhinoceros hornbills, interactive puzzle feeders for giraffe, and a tube for tigers filled with novel sounds and lights that keepers could trigger remotely,” said Orban.

Some ambitious projects, like a tiger gyroscope built into a giant plastic ball, didn’t quite work out or were too complicated to build within the course parameters. Plan B was the music-playing device designed to engage the tigers’ hearing, vision and incredible sense of smell.

The opportunity for Zoo staff to collaborate with some of its young neighbors at UC was just as important as the reinvigoration the students brought to the Zoo’s enrichment program.  By engaging this key demographic group, the Zoo also gained advocates who can tell their friends about the great care that animals in zoos receive.

“The students got to serve their local community and learn from and about animal care.  Some even expressed interest in continuing to work with zoos or aquariums.  All walked away with a unique portfolio item and real-world experience,” said Orban.

One UC team came up with a floating fish feeder and faux kelp forest to entice little blue penguins to stay in the water longer. “Swimming and being in the water provide good exercise and can also prevent or minimize foot issues that are common for this penguin species,” said Cody Sowers, a senior aviculturist at the zoo.  He added that the he’s a big fan of the UC program and thinks it was a great experience for keepers and students.

To learn more about the students and their projects, read “UC students test wits of zoo animals with enrichment” by University of Cincinnati’s Public Information Officer, Michael Miller.