behavior · children · environment · happiness · Nature

Make-A-Wish, Woodland Park Zoo grant a child’s wish to play with animals.

When 2 1/2-year-old Rylee, a Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington kid, said she loved animals, we wanted to give her an unforgettable day at Woodland Park Zoo. Two weeks ago, Rylee arrived in a stretch limo, fed elephants Chai and Watoto, pet and fed the goats, pigs and bunnies, enjoyed a picnic and rode the carousel—and had a wonderful time sharing it all with her family. We’re so sorry to learn that Rylee has since passed. But we know that while we gave Rylee and her family the gift of nature, they gave us the gift of sharing one of Rylee’s last days with her. Go outside and play today—nature and time are gifts we should all treasure together. (Photo: Jessica Johnny Photography)

Photo: When 2 1/2-year-old Rylee, a Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington kid, said she loved animals, we wanted to give her an unforgettable day at Woodland Park Zoo. Two weeks ago, Rylee arrived in a stretch limo, fed elephants Chai and Watoto, pet and fed the goats, pigs and bunnies, enjoyed a picnic and rode the carousel—and had a wonderful time sharing it all with her family. We’re so sorry to learn that Rylee has since passed. But we know that while we gave Rylee and her family the gift of nature, they gave us the gift of sharing one of Rylee’s last days with her. Go outside and play today—nature and time are gifts we should all treasure together. (Photo: Jessica Johnny Photography)

Biophilia is amazingly strong for all kids, and it’s simultaneously wonderful and heartbreaking that this was a little girl’s last wish.

anthropology · behavior · health · learning · mental health · psychology

I will be speaking on play this Friday, July 20, in Seattle at Parkour Visions

Me showing my serious anthropologist side.

Hi everyone. Just a little self-promotion, plus some promotion for a great organization:

I have been asked to speak this Friday, July 20, at 7:20 pm about play and parkour, at the 3rd annual Parkour Summit hosted by Parkour Visions in Seattle, WA.

As some of you know,  I received my MA in Anthropology this past winter, which focused on play and parkour. My play research has included studies of human-gorilla interaction at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the primary physical play behaviors found in all primates (including traceurs), and how traceurs redefine and interact with space in new and creative ways.

Full disclosure, I have also been an advisory board member for the Pacific Northwest Parkour Association (the nonprofit behind Parkour Visions) since 2006, when it was having board meetings in my kitchen and I would feed all the board members banana coconut pancakes.

I have been asked by Parkour Visions to discuss my findings about parkour and play, why play is vitally important across the human lifespan for physical and mental health, what human play looks like, and how parkour reflects and answers the need for lifelong play.

There will also be lots of other great speakers talking about how movement plays into health in other ways than just strong muscles, including gut health, mental health, and long life, and ways to incorporate movement and play into ones lives. See a list of speakers here. The talks will be after a community dinner, so if you’re interested you can also bring $5 or a plate of something healthy (think fruit or meat) starting at 5pm, and mingle with the speakers before the talk.

The summit also includes an invitational competition of some of the best traceurs in the world, which is free to the public, on Saturday morning, so if you can’t come to the talk please come by and check out these amazing athletes. There are lots of other events taking place, so check out the itinerary and see if there’s something that sparks your interest.

I look forward to seeing you there!

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!

anthropology · education · learning · Nature

Come See My Gorilla Talk at Woodland Park Zoo on November 18th!

That’s right, I will be presenting a brown bag at Woodland Park Zoo on Thursday, November 18th, regarding my research with visitors to the WPZ’s gorilla exhibit. That’s next week, eep!

I have been volunteering with WPZ since June of 2009. During the summers of 2009 and 2010, I studied how visitors interacted with the exhibit, the gorillas, and what lessons visitors took away with them. I also interviewed visitors about their emotional responses to the gorillas.

I was amazed by how strongly people identified with gorillas, pointing out similarities between their hands, their facial expressions, and what they ate (even though Gorillas are vegetarians). They wanted to know how old the gorillas were, who was the mom and dad, if they got along, did they get bored, and all sorts of comments that indicated a high level of empathy. Interestingly, if people had read the signs they would have answered a lot of their own questions…

I will discuss what visitors responded to, what they learned, and what visitors missed.

 WPZ Flyer Gorilla talk


More animal adventures at the zoo

My co-writer has posted another article about our adventures at the zoo at his other blog Natural Athletics.

He focuses mostly on his personal interactions with the animals in the first half of the article (not to downplay those; a couple of moments as he describes them are amazing!), but I think the most important part of his article in the latter third where he discusses the health of animals when interacting with humans. Since my graduate work has been focused on what we can do to help enrich animals lives (including humans), I found this part particularly applicable to my own life and studies. But that’s just me.

Speaking of, I should really be writing my thesis right now…which hopefully explains the sporadic posting over the past, well, two years, but hopefully that will soon change. In the meantime…hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to word-processing I go…


Laughter among primates

Lots of cool research has been published lately about primates and how complicated and awesome we are.

The latest is research showing that at least four primates other than humans use the same muscles, vocal intonations, and so on, to laugh at stuff that is funny, namely tickling.

I have more that I can share later, but for now: more adorable photos of primates from Woodland Park Zoo.

Rafe also had an awesome encounter with a snow leopard; definitely a complex interplay between mammals there. I’ll ask him to blog about it here.


Playing with the gorillas

Rafe and I once again ventured to the zoo. Our primate highlight this trip: the baby gorilla! The last time we were there the little girl was more interested in snuggling with her mom and sister, but this time she was ready to play!(and eat bark, but to each her own).

It was fascinating to see the baby and her older sister playing together. The sister would pound her chest as the play signal to start chasing her, and the baby would start chasing the sister in circles around their mom. The baby tried it a couple of times, but couldn’t quite get it down, so she looked like she was trying the rub-belly/pat-head trick that kids try. The two would also play wrestle a little, and then start chasing again. Usually the baby chased the sister, I think the sister chased the baby once.

The sister also carried the baby under her belly and on her back, letting the baby jump off.

The mom was pretty patient with the whole thing, only reaching in a couple of times and pulling the baby out of the play fighting to calm her down, or to breastfeed her. The way that kid went for the nipple man, WOW, poor mom.

Since I am studying play right now for my thesis, watching these two spend time playing was just fascinating and made my week!

I felt so honored to see this family hanging out, getting along, and playing.

See more photos on my flickr.


Zoo photos

This has truly become the zoo blog rather than much complex interplay. It’s pretty much just me and the other invisible contributor – aka my husband Rafe – sharing our adventures at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA. But there is a lot to explore there, and we are happy to support research and preservation of habitats for all animals.

For example, Rafe’s birthday adventure? What else – taking our family and friends to the zoo to see their primate brethren.

Baby gorilla wants to play with or eat the stick, I can’t tell.

Golden lion tamarin (aka marmoset) doin’ her thing.

Gage and Orangutan
My nephew Gage is not impressed with the orangutan (and the orangutan doesn’t look all that impressed either).

I am always fascinated to see these guys in action. They all have their own movement and behavioral patterns, yet these patterns are also so recognizable as being shared by us humans.

See all the photos from that day on my Flickr.


Siamang Part II

We went to the Woodland Park zoo this weekend on a sunny, relatively warmer day, and once again visited the Siamang enclosure (see blog on 1/8/09). When we got there, the female was busy nibbling on a carrot and not very interested in people. Rafe waited for the loud screamy kids to pass by, then crouched down again at the glass.

At first the female didn’t seem to notice him. So Rafe hopped a little to get her attention. She stopped mid-bite to look at him. Rafe hopped again. She shook. He shook back. She dropped her carrot and carefully bipeded her way across the branches to the glass towards Rafe. They looked at each other. Then she turned her back. He groomed. It was deja vu all over again.

Unfortunately this time when Rafe turned around and presented his back to her she didn’t groom him, but the fact that we could repeat the same event as before is pretty cool. We were able to ask some volunteers if they’d ever seen any behavior like that before, and they said they had seen a little girl play a mirror-type game with the male (she’d jump, he’d jump; she’d wave her arms, he’d wave his arms), but never anything like that with the female.

Still pretty amazing proof in both the male and the female siamang that they can pretend/play/imagine.


We got to play with Siamangs

Rafe and I visited the Woodland Park Zoo on January 2nd. We LOVE going to the zoo but rarely get to, so this was a big treat for us. What made it more exciting was that the animals hadn’t had many visitors in the past couple of weeks due to bad weather and holidays, so they were excited to see us too. Even on this freezing cold day any of the animals that had thick fur were out and about, lounging around on rocks or scrounging their habitats for food. We got to see animals that normally wouldn’t give zoo visitors so much as a glance: snow leopards, a wolf, wild dogs, even the gorillas seemed in a good mood. They viewed us from their side of the fence, totally comfortable with us staring back like the obsessed fans and paparazzi we truly are.

But the most exciting interaction that day was between Rafe and a siamang (a type of gibbon). They are tropical animals, and so were keeping warm inside their enclosure. They are typically friendly and interested in the humans that come by, and today was no exception.

As we walked up to peer inside their enclosure, the female siamang came over to look at us. Rafe, a large and fairly intimidating figure, got down to a crouching position in hopes the siamang would come over to see us. Instead, she hopped and shook at us. We weren’t sure if this was a threat behavior or not. The siamang shook and jumped again. This time Rafe tried it too. This frankly shocked the siamang, and so she did it a third time. When Rafe jumped a second time, she came straight over to the glass, as if to give Rafe a piece of her mind. She stared at him intently. Then, she turned her back towards him, almost as if a child does when pouting. She glanced over her shoulder at him. She reached out her right hand, one of her long fingers extended. Rafe pretended to grab it through the glass. She sort of wiggled her finger in response, and kept staring at Rafe. So Rafe tried something else. He started play-grooming her through the glass.

It looked very silly, this big man squatting down picking at the glass next to a siamang’s back. I expected the siamang to jump back from this weirdo (gently) tapping and scraping on her window. But instead, she seemed to relax into it. She put her arm down and turned away from Rafe so that she was no longer looking at him, but seemed interested in him continuing. He kept miming picking at her fur, even pretend ate a couple of mites he found.

This behavior went on for awhile. The siamang would look back occasionally to make sure Rafe was still going, especially if he paused for a minute, and so Rafe continued. The sight of a grown man grooming a siamang got the attention of a couple of other zoo goers, and they came over to watch. The siamang just stayed right there, being play-groomed.

Eventually Rafe stopped, and the siamang sort of looked up at him expectantly. Then she quickly jumped down from her side of the glass and swung off to explore other things.

Rafe and I giggled at this event and continued through the exhibit to see the other siamang. But the female wasn’t done yet, and found us at another window. Once again Rafe crouched on all fours to say hello again. She came over to the glass, and reached out a hand for Rafe. She then turned her back to the glass, again as if she weren’t interested in him. Rafe began grooming her. She looked over her shoulder at Rafe, and seemed content to continue this activity. Just to see what would happen, Rafe stopped and moved over to another part of the glass. The siamang followed, and repositioned herself against the glass. Rafe continued grooming.

This was an incredibly odd sight to see a human primate being allowed, nay, encouraged, to groom a siamang, even if it was through the safety of thick glass. It seems unlikely that she could have felt him as he gently tapped his two fingers against the glass as he grabbed at imaginary mites.

Again a crowd formed, and eventually one of them said he should turn around and present his back to the siamang to be groomed. He did. For a second, they just sat there, back to back. Then, she turned around and actually started to groom Rafe. A pick here, a pick there, through the glass she grabbed at invisible mites. After about 20 seconds though, she turned around and pressed herself back up against the glass, and it was once again Rafe’s turn. We all laughed, someone said she was being selfish, and Rafe went right back to grooming her.

Eventually the crowd dispersed, and it was time to move away from the siamang enclosure. Rafe stopped grooming her and sat back on his haunches. She was not looking at him but realized he had stopped grooming her, and turned to look at him. Rafe put his hand up against the glass to say good bye, and if I remember correctly she tapped at it, but almost as if to request more grooming. Rafe instead stood up and walked to the other side of the glass. The siamang followed him there, and when she realized their grooming session was over, hopped over to a branch in her enclosure and then ran off to find other exciting things.

As we walked away we couldn’t help but laugh in awe and amazement at this interaction. First, who thinks to play-groom with a wild animal, especially through practically bullet-proof glass? Apparently Rafe does. And the fact that the siamang took to it was just amazing, and almost unreal to see. Let alone that the siamang actually groomed Rafe back, albeit for only a short, half-hearted time. The inter-species interaction was completely surreal.

Did anyone else happen to be at the zoo that day and see this? What was your reaction? Have you ever seen this type of behavior before, not even from siamangs specifically, just other primates in general? After this event I almost wonder if this is something the siamang has tricked other visitors into doing, but again, who thinks to play-groom?