Entertaining Big Cats

Zoos use enrichment to keep big cats from becoming bored.

Bored cats can become unhealthy cats that eat and sleep too much. They also may become mischievous pets that get into trouble through inappropriate behavior. Cat owners know that part of their job is to help their pets avoid boredom through various forms of environmental enrichment.

But what about the big cats at the zoo? Is an enriched environment just as important to the lions, tigers and cheetahs? Do they get bored?

“If you think about a wild animal, they have a lot of things to do to stay alive,” says Heidi Hellmuth, enrichment coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “In a zoo, many of those things are done for them. An enriched environment is giving them a chance to use all of their natural abilities.”

Trainer Annette Russell of the San Diego Zoo says, “An enriched environment keeps our cats in better physical and mental condition. When enriching or changing the cat’s environment, it can simulate a natural occurrence, triggering an instinctual response and causing the animal to mimic the behavior that it would naturally display in the wild.”

Boredom often is hard for zoo visitor’s to understand in the wild cats. What may look like a bored animal may actually be one behaving naturally. For example, it is normal for a lion to rest for 20 hours. Or, a cat that makes a path while he paces around the compound may be patrolling his territory or watching a deer behind his exhibit’s fence, but he’s not bored. “We try to encourage natural activity,” says Marie Magnuson, the National Zoo’s great cat keeper. “Paths don’t necessarily mean pacing. They are just making natural pathways.”

Some of the ways zoos enrich big cats’ environments happen behind the scenes. At the National Zoo, they feed the cats whole dead rabbits once a week and bones twice a week to mimic their natural feeding habits. In the cats’ enclosures, they hang PVC pipes with chains inside for the cats to bat around and try to get down. On hot days, they give the cats frozen blood pops to enjoy.

They also have large kegs and jingle balls that are similar to toys pet owners use at home, only much larger. “The tigers like to play with them in the water,” says Magnuson. “We put things inside the balls to change things up once in a while.”

At the San Diego Zoo, Russell says, “Enrichment can be as simple as introducing an unexpected new scent in the cats environment. Our big cat version of catnip is fresh elephant poop. Even our guests viewing from the outside of the cats’ environment are enrichment. The cats may be watching you just as you are watching them.”

Russell also promotes lure play as a form of physical stimulation and mock hunting. For example, the zoo uses a large plush toy tied to a rope several hundred meters long, moving at 70 mph, for the cheetahs to chase. 

All of the big cat experts say training is essential to enrichment and allows them to take better care of the animals with less risk to the caretakers. “Training gives the cats a chance to use their brains,” says Magnuson. “We are very big on training here. And if you train your cat at home, it also keeps you from being bored as well.”

Linda A. Thompson-Odum is a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about pets, food, travel, and home improvement. She lives in New Hampshire with her 10-year-old adopted cat, C.J.

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Cats · Lifestyle