As an animal trainer or even a pet owner the most important thing you can do with your animal is to listen to them. I don’t mean physically having the ability to listen to them, but rather your willingness to sit, watch, and listen. In my blog post last week it was very clear that listening to an animal I work with can be imperative – it can save your life. Like listening to Makine, my rehab Java Macaque. The keepers and staff at the Cincinnati Zoo also listen to and know their animals. A clear example of keepers knowing their animals and listening to them is found in the story of the design of the Zoo’s cougar exhibit.
When I was helping to raise the cougars, “Joseph” and “Tecumseh,” we had a strict schedule of exercise, enrichment, training, and play. Each day we would go for multiple walks, exercise them in the Cheetah Encounter yard, play with them, and even nap with them. We had to build a very strong bond with these animals so they could be transferred to their new enclosure and feel safe and secure. The only way to do this was to spend the time with them so even if they were worried they would trust their trainers and look to them for guidance. We wanted them to know if we weren’t worried about something, they didn’t need to be either. The only way to get that response and trust from them was to spend every day, all day, with them. Rough job, I know.
While getting to know them and building a strong relationship we started to notice little things that they enjoyed or things that made them feel secure. So when we were asked to work with the company that was building and designing their enclosure we were very excited. Because of the amount of time we had spent with the cougars, when we saw the original plans for their new home we knew it wasn’t exactly right for their personalities. Fortunately, the design team was excited to hear our feedback and they were ready to incorporate more of the cougars individual personalities into the space. For example, Tecumseh loves swimming and would spend hours neck deep in the pool in the Cheetah Encounter yard. And Joseph loved to be up high, surveying everything around him. They also loved to sleep together and would need an appropriate place to curl up together that was big enough for them both. The original design had a small pool, only deep enough to wet their feet. It had two small dens not large enough for them both to sleep in and no areas cut out for them to see their zoo from up high. We also felt that another good idea would be a waterfall large enough to drown quite a bit of noise from the crowds we knew they would draw.
So, it was through knowing these two animals and listening to what they needed that we were able to help redesign their enclosure to include a pool, large enough for them both to be neck deep in, a den for them both to snuggle in, multiple rock outcroppings for them to watch the patrons go by and a beautiful waterfall that would drown out the noise, provide additional enrichment, and keep their rocks cool.
Listening to its animals is what makes the Cincinnati Zoo stand out as one of the best zoo’s to visit and to work for.
Personally, I think the Zoo’s animals may even tell you that…if you listen.