In the cooler weather Dartmoor Zoo’s keepers occasionally do rope-pulling with their big cats for enrichment purposes. This type of activity, which is common at many zoos, is very important to keep the animals fit and healthy as it encourages exercise, which builds muscle mass.
Over February half-term, the zoo is for the first time enabling a small number of visitors to join in with the keepers, to experience for themselves the strength of the animals and to learn more about these threatened species. The zoo is a charity and money raised from participation in the experience goes toward the zoo’s conservation, education and research efforts to improve captive animal management and protect wild habitats that are being destroyed or lost.
The enrichment activity works by attaching meat to a rope, which is fed through to outside the animals’ enclosure, and waiting until the animal picks it up. It is completely at the cat’s discretion if they want to engage with the enrichment and they are not forced to participate in any way. The experience is just for a few minutes once a day and will alternate daily between our lion and tiger.
Explained Dartmoor Zoo’s senior keeper: “There are many zoos that do this kind of enrichment. We believe in giving visitors as much insight into the animals’ needs and natures as we can. It’s a great privilege to experience this level of contact with the animals and we hope participants will feel that the small charge we are levying to aid our charity is a fair exchange.
“Senior carnivore keepers are always present to ensure the wellbeing of the cats, which can choose whether or not to participate.
“In the wild these animals will be hunting, patrolling and defending their territory. Therefore, in captivity it is essential for us to try to mimic the behaviours to create the best welfare possible.
“We do lots of different enrichment for the cats and this is just one type that we use. Most of our enrichment is designed to challenge them mentally, as there are few ways to challenge them physically. The cats are built for tackling and killing prey that is much larger than themselves and therefore they will be using all the muscles in their bodies to help them do this. Rope-pulling as enrichment is one of the few ways that we can mimic this in captivity.
“The experience does not last longer than a few minutes and we only ever do it when the weather is cool enough so that they do not overheat.
“The rope-pulling exercise creates a brief period of heightened exercise for the cats involved. This simulates the natural hunting and feeding behaviour of both species, where any feeds would be proceeded by the exertions involved in hunting down, restraining and killing a prey animal. For the lions it additionally reflects the competition between members of the pride for their share of the kill.
“This behavioural stimulation also helps to replicate a more natural time-budget and exercise levels for these animals, which in the wild would spend a majority of the day sleeping or patrolling territory, punctuated by brief bursts of effort for hunting. Just as with humans, even a relatively small amount of additional exercise can be of great benefit to both physical and mental health and wellbeing. This activity is undertaken at a quiet time within the day and any audience is asked to keep noise to a minimum so as not to disturb the animals.
“The interaction is also of added benefit to Jasiri whose companion passed away a few months ago. Whilst waiting for some new lions to arrive, which he will be introduced to very slowly and carefully, the opportunity to physically interact with other individuals, albeit of the human species, provides positive stimulation. All of our residents are captive bred and are used to humans. In the future we have plans to participate in international release programmes for animals not seen by the public.
“The welfare of the animals is constantly assessed by the keepers monitoring the experience. They keep a close eye on physical effects of the exercise to ensure that animals are not over-exerting themselves or otherwise at risk of physical damage. The activity had to be approved by the Ethics Committee at the Zoo. In addition, the activity is fully risk assessed, with the human participants receiving a Health and Safety briefing prior to the event. The keeper assigned to supervise the human part of the experience will also be working to ensure that the rope-pull itself is undertaken in a safe manner for the humans and animals involved.”
Additionally this independent statement:
‘Enrichment is an essential component of providing good health and welfare in the zoological environment. Well-managed Big cat tug of war activities such as those provided by Dartmoor zoo offer lions the opportunities to engage in a physically and mentally challenging activity. The physical benefits of such activity may include strengthening of the periodontal ligaments anchoring the teeth, strengthening of the jaws and facial muscles, strengthening of the musculoskeletal system and cognitive engagement. As the lion always ‘wins’ his prey in this activity, his behavioural needs are satiated and he is then able to prepare and consume his food. Such activities are a well recognised part of the evolving improvements in animal welfare that we see in modern zoo facilities.
Visitor engagement is an important part of developing empathy with and respect for zoo animals. Any animal interactions should always meet the guidelines set down by zoological organisations such as BIAZA and EAZA. Well-managed interactions can showcase the impressive physical strength and mental needs of animals such as lions, building relationships between zoo visitors and zoo animals and promoting respect and empathy.’
Heather J. Bacon BSc (Hons) BVSc CertZooMed MRCVS
EAZA animal welfare working group
Welfare education and outreach manager
Jeanne Marchig international centre for animal welfare education
University of Edinburgh
Issued on behalf of Dartmoor Zoo by Absolute PR and Marketing.