anthropology · behavior · community · design · environment · happiness · mental health · Nature · psychology

Animals get their own trail systems at Philadelphia Zoo

Lonely Monkey Ape at Zoo
Soon this guy will be able to take his own self-guided tours of Philadelphia zoo. (Photo credit:

I am so excited about this I’m practically jumping out my seat to tell people. I first read about it in USA Today; animals are getting to wander outside of their exhibits, share spaces with other animals, and over all just chill around the zoo. Yup, that’s right:

The Philadelphia Zoo on Thursday opens the first leg of an ambitious enclosed trail system designed to allow large animals such as great apes, bears and big cats to roam throughout the zoo. It will give them access to one another’s habitats in a kind of time-share arrangement and offer visitors a closer look at wild animals behaving like wild animals.

Other U.S. zoos have created paths between exhibits, mixed habitats, elevated paths or rope swings for apes.

“This is an emerging trend” among zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, says the group’s senior vice president for external affairs, Steve Feldman. “Great animal care means providing for animals’ physical and psychological welfare. These pathways and rotations really allow them that kind of stimulation.”

The Philadelphia Zoo’s program is the first to encompass the entire zoo. “This campus-wide effort to build this trail system is unique,” Feldman says. “It’s innovative and is really taking that trend to the next level.”

Because it’s the first effort of its kind, “we don’t have a road map to see how others have done it,” says Vik Dewan, the Philadelphia Zoo’s chief executive officer. The system “puts animal well-being first and foremost,” he says, and gives visitors “an experience here, that when combined with other experiences, paints the bigger picture of how they could be more effective stewards of the world.”

The critters will have to “timeshare” so the orangutans won’t be hanging out with the brown bears. In fact the bears might not get a chance to use the pathways until winter when it’s too cold for the primates. But that said, it’s sure to be a boon for the animals, as well as for the people. The zookeepers already report seeing a positive result from a similar vine system in their primate exhibit.

The article mentions other zoos starting to move in this direction. But which ones, and what exactly are they up to? I’m curious to learn more. Any hints? Leave them in the comments below.

animals given access to the new trail are expected to be more active and
to benefit from the stimulation of being able to see visitors and other
animals from a new perspective.

behavior · creativity · environment · play

Boat Bumbers as elephant toys

An elephant named Chai carries a boat bumper around with her trunk. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

This time of year we often think of playing in boats and recreation on the water. But sometimes one kind of play can inspire an entirely different kind. I came across this great blog post from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA, about how recycled objects like boat bumpers make great toys, especially for larger critters:

Our elephants have a number of toys, or, in zoo-speak, Environmental Enrichment Devices (EED) that are designed to bring out their instinctual behaviors, along with all the naturally enriching elements in their exhibit like trees, logs, leaf piles, water and different ground coverings. The elephants have quite an array of EEDs, and one of their favorites is a boomer ball, which we often fill with treats. But constantly purchasing more boomer balls (since the elephants can be a bit destructive with them) can be a little costly. So, what’s a zookeeper to do? We think outside the box, er, ball.

With a background working with marine mammals, I thought back to my days of playing with dolphins. We would throw boat bumpers and buoys in with the 800-pound critters, and play endless games with them. So, how would an 8,000-pound animal react to one?

To get my answer I ventured to West Marine to see if we could acquire a couple of boat bumpers to test out on these playful pachyderms. Lo and behold, I discovered that not only did the manager have a couple to spare, but that in the summertime, they often receive dozens each week. Finding a new and revitalized way to keep them out of the landfill was refreshing to him, and getting free toys for the animals at the zoo was exhilarating for me!

We hung a boat bumper up in the barn, and put another in an EED container to protect it from getting squished too soon. It didn’t take Bamboo long to figure out where the hole was located so she could get the treats out. It took a little encouragement from us for Bamboo to notice the hanging bumper, but once she realized it, too, held treats, it was game on, and she batted it non-stop until she was certain every morsel was out.

To see how the other elephants reacted, read the rest of the blog post.

Congrats to Woodland Park Zoo and West Marine for keeping stuff out of the landfill and making some elephants very happy!