When designing a modern animal enclosure, we start by carefully studying the natural behaviour of the animal that will live in it. What does the animal need? Can it retreat out of sight if it wants to, for example? Animals native to tropical rainforests require access to heated indoor enclosures as soon as it gets too cold outside. We also try to stimulate the animals’ natural behaviour by surprising them with various forms of behavioural enrichment. In this edition: how scents from other species can be used as behavioural enrichment.
For humans, sight is by far our most important sense for orienting ourselves through our environment. However, for many animal species, scent plays a much more important role than for humans. Many animal species use scent to mark their territories as a means of communication with conspecifics and other animal species. Predators often locate their prey by following scent trails. The potential prey animals, in turn, often detect the scent of predators in time, after which they raise the alarm and bolt. Scent also plays an important role in communication between males and females in many animal species when it comes to mating. We will tell you more about that another time.
There are many practical examples of zookeepers making creative use of other species’ scents to stimulate an animals’ natural behaviour. In the Desert, for example, zookeepers sometimes place branches from the bobcat enclosure or ropes from the ringtail enclosure in the collared peccary enclosure. Peccaries have an excellent sense of smell and soon had the hairs on the back of their necks standing up in excitement, sniffing around this strange object in their enclosure with such a distinctive smell! In the case of the ropes from the ringtail enclosure, the peccaries even started rolling around extensively to mark the ropes with their own odour. This behavioural enrichment stimulated the collared peccaries to test their senses and kept them naturally preoccupied with the new and unusual smelling object for a long time.
With the same aim in mind, we sometimes put elephant dung in a panther enclosure or rhino dung with the lions. The predators often react to the strange smell in their enclosure with curiosity, particularly because they use scent trails to track down prey in nature. Of course, Asian elephants are not natural prey for panthers, and lions will not usually consider a healthy adult rhino as potential prey, but both species occur naturally in their habitat, and it is primarily the unfamiliar smell that triggers them. Young animals can react very enthusiastically, inquisitively, and curiously to these extraordinary stimuli.
The new scent does not have to come from other animals. We sometimes put freshly pruned plant material in the aardvark enclosure. Various tropical plant species emit a strong odour when freshly pruned. The aardvarks are not particularly interested in some odours, but they go wild with enthusiasm for certain plant smells, tearing the material apart with their claws while frantically sniffing to catch as much of the scent as possible! We sometimes even use perfumes for the cheetahs and panthers, spraying the scents into trees or bushes in the enclosure, for example. The cheetahs react strongly to this, and the strange smell in their enclosure keeps them busy for a long time. They rub their heads along the spots and their whole bodies on the scent marks left by the zookeepers.
An unusual scent placed or applied in the enclosure from time to time as a form of behavioural enrichment can thus cause plenty of fixation and corresponding investigative behaviour among the permanent residents of that enclosure.
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