Around the Zoo, social interaction means a lot more than posting updates to Facebook. Hands-on, in-person socialization is crucial to the well-being of our ambassador animals.
From spring through fall, you see animal handlers throughout the Zoo offering encounters with some of our animals. Someone might introduce you to a snake, an armadillo, an alpaca, or a barn owl. Often you can touch these creatures. Our handlers are only too happy to tell you all about each species’ natural history and that individual animal’s life story.
Each of these animals is an ambassador for its species. Getting “close enough to care” inspires visitors to help us conserve wildlife and wild places.
So what happens in the winter? The animals who make up our interpretive animal program—the ones who get up close and personal with guests—get a lot of socialization! Winter is the perfect opportunity to reinforce bonds between animals and handlers. These social interactions also ensure that eyes and hands are on each ambassador animal regularly so members of the care team can monitor their health and well-being. And, perhaps most important, these experiences provide crucial enrichment for the animals.
At the Cincinnati Zoo, we pride ourselves on providing enriching experiences for our animal residents. Animals need enrichment in the form of novel sights, sounds, scents, and experiences to keep their bodies and minds healthy. For animals in human care, enrichment often includes some degree of interaction with human animals. We go to great lengths to make sure each animal is happy, warm and well-cared for even when the weather won’t allow them to be outdoors. Our interaction with them during the winter is every bit as important to their well-being as during the warmer months.
A side benefit to these interactions is that the animals maintain comfort and confidence in interacting with visitors. Much work by keepers, trainers, and other handlers has gone into preparing them for encounters, year-round. The animals learn to trust their handlers, get comfortable being around new people (our visitors!), and in some cases, they even enter a carrier on request and follow other directions. During their off-season, the animals and their handlers must continue to “practice” so they’re ready for spring.
Members of the Zoo’s staff and volunteer team, along with interns, all give of their time to socialize animals during the winter. An exhaustive schedule is mapped out to ensure that every interpretive animal gets social interaction every day of the week, just as they would during the rest of the year.
Handlers interact with each animal for set amounts of time, working in a similar way that they would during an encounter. This is usually done indoors, since we closely monitor what temperature ranges an animal can be exposed to. If the animal is trained to enter a crate on request, the handler practices that behavior and gives rewards. In other cases, the handler might simply hold the animal for a little while or, when appropriate, let the animal move around a dig box or other enclosed area for exercise and exploration.
A great example of this process, is for Moe. Maybe you’ve visited Moe, the two-toed sloth, snoozing in his tree in the P&G Discovery Forest. Visitors can schedule behind-the-scenes experiences during which a handler will invite Moe down from his tree and place him on a sloth-approved, mobile jungle gym so guests have the chance to see and sometimes touch him. It’s important to maintain this routine all year round so Moe is comfortable with his ambassador role.
Be sure to come visit Moe and our ambassador animals this spring! They are ready to meet their adoring public and teach you about their amazing wild counterparts.