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Breaking the Enrichment and Plant Cycle: Getting Better Results in Exhibit Landscaping

January 16, 2018 7:29 AM | Anonymous


AAZK conference presentation and gray wolf study:

Jake Pool and Angela Gibson present a joint project between their horticulture and animal departments at AAZK conference.

Jake Pool and Angela Gibson present a joint project between their horticulture and animal departments at AAZK conference.

Northwest Trek is a special place where employees and volunteers alike feel it’s a second family. This environment can encourage interdepartmental team-ups where staff shares their expertise to help others. An example of this was demonstrated between Northwest Trek employees Angela Gibson (large carnivore Keeper/AAZK Rainier chapter president) and Jake Pool (Horticulturist/Arborist/Maintenance Lead/AZH Director-at-Large) who worked together scientifically testing theories about canid (gray wolf: Canis lupus) behavior and exhibit usage as it relates to establishing vegetation inside their exhibit at Northwest Trek. The study ended up producing some interesting and beneficial results that were presented at the annual national conference of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) in Washington, D.C. in August, 2017.

Breaking the Enrichment and Plant Cycle: Getting Better Results in Exhibit Landscaping

Wolves view new plants, logs, and substrate added to their exhibit as enrichment no matter what the staff intent is. Keepers design enrichment to allow animals to express natural behavior. For wolves these opportunities include territorial marking and tracking prey. Keepers hide food, treats, scent, and toys under logs, behind stumps, in the soil, in vegetation clumps, and up in trees. The wolves seek out these items in a race to get there first chewing, scratching, rolling, and digging at the enrichment. When the horticulturist comes into an exhibit to plant and revitalize the exhibit landscape he proceeds to hide plants next to logs, behind stumps or between other items in order to make it hard for the wolves to find them, spreading his scent along the way. Immediately the wolves find these new items and treat the plants the same way they would enrichment that the keeper provided but with the added bonus that the plants smell like Jake, a novel scent in their territory.

This is not a unique problem to Northwest Trek, but for all zoological facilities. So, Jake and Angela decided to team-up and see if they could break this enrichment and plant cycle and reduce the wolves’ attraction to the newly added horticulturist plants.

Jake and Angela planted testing plots of sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) and native deciduous saplings (Red Alder, Red-twig Dogwood, Cottonwood) testing 3 variables hoping to mask the novel scent of the horticulturist. They tested soiled wolf bedding (straw), soiled compost the wolves had in the exhibit, and increased browse for enrichment comparing plots that only the keeper or only the horticulturist planted. Their research found that overall if the keeper did the planting on exhibit versus the horticulturist, the plants received less damage by the wolves therefore increasing the survival rate of the new plants. It was shown though that if staff planted using soiled bedding (straw) it significantly reduced their interaction with the plants including plants planted by the horticulturist. What is exciting is that the soiled bedding is a material easy for any facility to incorporate into their planting techniques increasing the survivability of new vegetation. Soiled bedding masked the novel scent long enough to allow the plants to remain intact through the first 2-3 days before the horticulturist scent wore off.

We believe that these results may be the same in many canid species that zoos  exhibit, and are planning the next round of planting studies with Northwest Trek’s other canids (coyotes and red fox) as well as with the felids (cougar, lynx, bobcat).

Their presentation was well received by the attendees at the AAZK conference with other facilities reaching out to learn more about the study as well. AAZK attendees came up to us with a new excitement to work with their horticulturist. We all benefit with interdepartmental relationships to help encourage corporation within their own facilities. We are stronger together.

If you want to learn more, please contact Angela or Jake (Angela.gibson@nwtrek.org and Jake.pool@nwtrek.org). They would be happy answer any questions.

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