Terry Marotta: Zoo animals in our care
If you want to really scare yourself for Halloween, consider spending time around creatures who get blood popsicles for treats.
I speak of the big cats at the New England Stone Zoo whose care I learned something about during a special “backstage” tour I was lucky enough to go along on.
Our guide: the amiable assistant curator, Pete Costello, who for 23 years has worked at this small jewel of a zoo, sister to the venerable Franklin Park Zoo some 10 miles to the south.
“Keep in mind now,” he warned us as we ducked inside to watch a bit of the jaguars’ training, “these animals are not your friends” - a point reiterated by animal trainer Dayle Sullivan-Taylor.
“Don’t stand anywhere near the bars,” she told us firmly. “We train these animals so they can bear to be touched in case we have to examine them for medical issues, but make no mistake - they are dangerous.”
The young jaguar called Chessie has been training with Dayle since she was 8 weeks old and follows commands beautifully.
“Open,” Dayle says and she opens her mouth. “Paw” and she extends her paw. “Over right” and she lies on her right side. Each time she obeys in this fashion, Dayle clicks her clicker, then throws meat into the cage.
“All this just desensitizes them to human touch,” she explained. “Once, Chessie here got something caught between her teeth and because of this training, I was able to extract it - right through the bars” – without, she did not need to add, losing her arm in the process.
But the animals don’t undergo these lessons only for when they are sick or have thorns stuck in their paws. The training entertains and stimulates them and is part of their overall enrichment program. Props of all kinds as well as sounds and smells are used to keep them interested and alert and happily curious.
It has been discovered, for example, that the big cats are wild about Calvin Kline’s Obsession for Men when it is sprayed around on their environment – something about its complex pheromone-rich bouquet. Giraffes, otters, gorillas, parrots and even goats have toys and “train” as well. And last weekend on a return visit to the zoo I saw one of the gibbons swinging through the air holding the handle of a bright plastic jack-o’-lantern – with her tail.
Environmental enrichment of this kind gives the animals the chance to make choices and experience new things, just as they would in the wild.
They like different textures, from straw to soft blankets to wood shavings.
They are hugely compelled by certain scents, with various kinds of animal urine topping the list.
And then there are snacks. Besides blood popsicles, the big cats also like to see the occasional frozen mouse tossed onto their rocks now and then.
I have a friend who had donated two bottles of Obsession, and near the end of my tour, I asked Pete what else they could use. He immediately cited the big capsule-shaped toy that we had seen Chessie mounting and biting, much as she might bite the necks of her prey in the wild.
“That’s called a Boomer Ball,” he said. “They come in all shapes and sizes and people can to contribute to the purchase of one by going to the website that virtually all zoos have these days.” (Theirs is www.zoonewengland.org.)
“Is there anything else I should tell people?” I asked as we shook hands at the gate.
“Just tell them to visit their zoos!” he called back to me over a little distance as he began trotting back to his charges. “Just have them come and see how much they learn!”