Zoo Animal Fun, Games, and Wellbeing

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 129
Podcast Interview with Danielle Wong
Danielle Wong at the Phonenix Zoo

Dr. Biology:


This is Ask a Biologist, a program about the living world, and I'm Dr. Biology. For those who have been following along, we have been visiting the Phoenix Zoo for the past couple of episodes. This will be the third in the series and one where I hope we get to play around or at least learn about play and in particular, how, why, and when animals play because play is important for so many things like skill development, physical fitness, stress relief one of my favorites. It also promotes cognitive development by challenging learners to solve problems, make decisions, and think abstractly. 

And play is not just for humans. Primates, you know, apes and chimpanzees, birds have been known to play. Cetaceans, which are dolphins, and whales all are known to play. There's even research on reptiles and insects that show some play-like behavior. 


I'm looking forward to the conversation today because our guest is Danielle Wong, the Behavioral Enrichment and Animal Welfare Coordinator at the Phoenix.  If anyone knows about animal play and what it takes to make an engaging and I might even say fun environment for animals, it will be Danielle, and I bet we learn a lot more about what it takes to develop the best enrichment activities and environments for a wide range of animals. Welcome to Ask a Biologist, Danielle. 



Thank you for having me. 

Dr. Biology: 


It's been such a joy to be at the zoo, just to be able to get out and be with the animals. You know that's not really a job, is it? 



Oh no, when people think of a job, they think of something they have to go do. Going to the zoo every day is a good treat, right? 

Dr. Biology:


And I started the episode off talking about play as part of animal enrichment. What else is involved with animal enrichment beyond play? 



When we talk about behavioral enrichment at the zoo, we're talking about purposeful, goal-oriented items which can be to stimulate play and to have them spend their time doing something. But more than that we like to tie into their natural history, and we like to dive into what should they be doing? What behaviors should we be seeing? What aren't we seeing? And then we try to elicit those behaviors. 

Dr. Biology:


Ah, interesting. So, if a giraffe isn't acting like a giraffe, there's a problem. 



Yeah, when people think of animals in the zoo, they automatically think that they're domesticated in some way. But these animals are still wild. They still have all the natural instincts and, in order to promote their most optimal well-being, we want them to exhibit all their natural behaviors that they can and have that capacity to do that, and behavioral enrichment allows them to do that. 

Dr. Biology:


Hmm, okay, so I promised a little bit about play. So, I do want to get into that part. One of the questions, though, before we dive into all the animals that you know that play at the zoo, are there animals that don't play, do you know? I'm thinking probably not a snake. 



Well, you know, it really is going to depend on the individual within a species too. So I'm sure that there probably are some instances of play being seen across all species, but when you take into consideration their age and the individual behavior as well, sometimes we don't see that as much, and so it really just depends. 

Dr. Biology:


Okay, so for those that play, let's pick the most playful animal at the zoo now. 



Well, probably a huge favorite would be Chutti, the greater one-horned rhino. He is one of the most engaging animals that we have, and he spends a lot of time interacting with his environment, interacting with his behavioral enrichment, and even interacting with his keepers, and a lot of that would come across as this aimless play behavior, where he's just playing and he's moving around in his exhibit and it's so much fun to watch. 

Dr. Biology 


Right. When I look at him and he's in his habitat and enclosure I notice what I would say are toys. So, can we talk about some of the toys, and how did someone come up with the idea that a tire is a good toy? 



Right, those toys that we're talking about. That's the behavioral enrichment, and so probably the easiest way to relate it to us as humans is to think of it as toys. But if there's one thing we can take away from this, that's so much more than that, and so a lot of the items that he has in his exhibit. They're fun for him to interact with, but they do also serve a purpose. A lot of those items that he gets up and he manipulates, he throws them around, which he has been known to do. He'll get a drainage culvert like a black pipe on his horn and he'll toss it in the air. He'll carry it around. 


All of that stuff helps tie into his natural history, where these guys are known to kind of be ecosystem engineers in a way. They go through their environment, and they will route through things, they will move things around, and that will actually help create different architecture in the ecosystem where they're from. And so all of that, while it seems like a lot of fun and it definitely is it really ties into their natural history too, and where we get the ideas for things is somebody just randomly thought, hey, this might be really fun to play with or to provide for him and then go from there, and a lot of that actually comes from the industry. The zoo industry together will rely on one another for their expertise and their experiences in order to help provide the best experience for the animals. 

Dr. Biology: 


Very interesting, because I don't usually think about animals as engineers, but yes, there are quite a bit of it Animals that are engineers. Besides the rhino, what are we going to have for engineers at the zoo? 



Oh goodness. Well, there are, let's see, some Cape porcupines that will naturally dig into the ground in order to excavate burrows and or to find their food. You've got birds as well, that will kind of take items from one location to another, nest-building all of that. So, across the entire animal kingdom, you're going to have engineers everywhere. We might have to think about it a little bit more, to think of it as engineering. 

Dr. Biology:


Right. What about the primates? 



Oh, easily. Most primates are so intelligent they can utilize tools, and so you can actually see a lot of that example in the environment that we provide to them and their enclosures. They can move things around. We provide them tools to utilize for puzzle feeders. You'll be able to see their behavioral enrichments really geared towards that tool use as well. 

Dr. Biology:


Now, in addition to behavioral enrichment, the other area that you're very interested in is well-being, and we had Dr. Gary West on the last episode talking about life as a zoo veterinarian right Beyond their healthcare. You're looking well, you're looking into the well-being of the animals just as much. You just aren't necessarily treating them for any kind of health issues. So, what does that involve? 



Yeah, when we're talking about well-being, we're talking about the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy, which ultimately is the question that everybody wants to know Is that animal happy? And so that's what we're looking at and what we'll actually do is our keepers know the animals the best and the keepers, on a daily basis, are working with these animals and they might notice some subtle changes and they record everything. They have those conversations if they're starting to see something. So that's always happening on a daily basis where these keepers are keeping an eye on the animals. But we do also have a more formal assessment process and that's our well-being assessments, and for those, we will look at both the inputs or things that we provide to the animals. So, we provide their diet, their enclosure space, their behavioral enrichment, and the trained staff that work with them. 


But then we also look at their outputs, so what they're giving to us, their health, their weight, behaviorally, how they're responding to us, and we look at all of these assessments and then we go through and see, well, how are we doing? Do we need to have areas of improvement or do we have those areas I should say that we need to improve on, and then we go through and we can have those conversations and make those changes if needed. And that's kind of our way of keeping us in check, making sure that we are doing right by the animals, because that is definitely our top priority, but it is our way to keep us in check on that. And it's a whole process that the keepers get to fill it out. The managers come in, they provide their input, the curators provide their input, then it comes to me and the director of living collections. We get to provide input If there are any concerns. We have an animal welfare committee on board that we go through, we review and then we make those changes as needed. 

Dr. Biology:


You use the term happy and obviously, that's a challenge, right? 



With animals saying happy. 

Dr. Biology:


So, we might say content, or even maybe better, just they're in their natural animal groove. Yes, and you talked about learning about the natural history of a particular animal, and that's the part I am interpreting, that you basically do the research on how an animal should behave in the wild, and if they're not doing something similar in the zoo, then probably something's wrong. 



Right, and that's where leaning on our industry as well is so important because we've got decades and decades of experience of people working with these animals and saying, hey, that's not normal or that's exactly what you'd want to see. And, honestly, this whole field is just constantly progressing. We're learning more, we're always trying to improve, and so we talk about animal welfare science. That's the science that we've used to inform our conversations about well-being. So, there's always room for improvement in my mind, and so it's always looking for ways that we can do more. 

Dr. Biology:


Right On an earlier episode, we talked about one of the challenges with zoos, because there are some people that don't like zoos, and I do understand they really think of them more as prisons than a resort. 


They also don't always realize the conservation role that you play when we talk about the animals, and the idea is that we're not trying to domesticate them. That's one thing. Let them be wild, that's important. But the other one is some of the animals that you have at the zoo do get reintroduced into the wild. So, when you're working with those kind of animals, what do you do? That's, if anything different than the ones you do, that probably aren't going to be released into the wild. 



That's a super great question. Those animals that may be released into the wild definitely have more restrictions on how we typically work with them. A lot of those animals tend to be less human involvement, a little more hands off. You try to not familiarize them with humans and or training them any sort of capacity, because you don't want them to go out into the wild and then be habituated to go right back into a populated area. And so for those animals, when we talk about like behavioral enrichment and things like that, we try to keep it as natural as possible. So, we're definitely more limited there. But it also is geared towards seeing those skills that we would want to see prior to them being released, and I think that's what's really important to know is that it's all again still very goal oriented and purposeful ties right back into that, but for them the intent and the purpose is just a little different. So that's how we offer them just some slightly different things. 

Dr. Biology:


Right Now, when you're building your habitat and you're thinking about them, and I'm not mistaken, is it the squirrel monkeys? Is it the new home for them? 



In the Monkey Village.  

Dr. Biology:


Yeah, Monkey Village. Was Monkey Village basically renovated before we got our new troop of monkeys for Monkey Village? Did we renovate the space beforehand? 



We actually did make some modifications, namely extending wall height and trimming back limbs on trees because we wouldn't want them to accidentally find their way out of the exhibit and oftentimes it wouldn't be necessarily their intent to find their way out of the exhibit, they would just happen to find their way out through a pathway and then they would be out there, the other animals would be inside and they would be kind of confused like oh, how do I get back in there? 


So, in order to kind of prevent that confusion on their part and also, it's a new space for them, so really just kind of defining the boundaries of the space for them, making those modifications on trimming back those limbs, increasing the height. We closed down Monkey Village so that they would have time to acclimate to the space themselves. So it wasn't even open to the public for people to go in that way. They had time to get used to their environment. And then, as we started to introduce people back in because it is a walkthrough exhibit when we introduced people back in we started by having the people only go a certain distance, or smaller groups, just slowly getting them used to having people in their space. But they have all sorts of space in there to get away if they want to. They can regulate their distance and they really seem to be enjoying their exhibit and they're really fun to watch in there too. 

Dr. Biology:


Right, that's one of the favorite places for me to go and the bird aviary. You know you have several of them that are quite nice, where you can go in and the birds are just wandering around, flying from place to place. That's another place. So, when you're developing a new habitat, how do you do that? And part of that question also is how long does that take to figure out? 



Oh yeah, it takes a long time, and it really just depends on how big of a scale we're talking, on how long it takes to go from start to finish. But we really do try to design the exhibits with the animals, natural history in mind. You want to ensure that there's enough one space for them, and so when we look at a space that we could be doing an exhibit, we go through and we say, well, how much space do we have, realistically, what animals can go there? And then we sit there and we then think, well, what are their requirements? What do they need? What do they need for resting, what do they need for locomotion, moving around?  


Also, a lot of animals will come in social groups. A lot of animals are social, and so what are their requirements there? And if it is a social group, well then the space needs to be bigger to be able to have them regulate their space from individuals of their species or their social companions, as you will. And so there's a lot of thought on that end. But then furthermore, you then go and look at their natural history. 


If you build an exhibit for a jaguar, for example, you also want to include not just a lot of space on the ground but a lot of vertical space, because they are an arboreal cat, they'll go up into the trees and they climb, and so you really have to tie all of that in. So, it's a big design process. Of course, we always want to make sure that the space that we provide for them is optimal for their well-being, but we also want to make sure that the guests can really see what space they're in too, and so it takes a while to design and then, once you have a design, then it goes into the construction phase and, like all construction projects, sometimes that gets pushed back, but it's definitely worth the wait once you have those new exhibits open and you have those animals out there and you're seeing how they're in those exhibits and, behaviorally, how they're responding to their new space. 

Dr. Biology:


You know what I'm waiting for. 



Predator Passage yes. 

Dr. Biology:


I think, what the meerkats? Aren't they going to be in there? 



We're going to have meerkats and hyenas, then we're going to have a leopard, as well as African lions. 

Dr. Biology: 





I know it's going to be amazing once it opens.  

Dr. Biology:


And we delay the opening. And why? 



Well, sometimes construction projects might take a little longer. But also, we have to think about where we are. We're in Phoenix. It is so warm here during the summer that when we talk about bringing in animals for these new exhibits or transfers, we also have to consider what is the weather like, and is this the optimal time to bring them in? And for a good part of our year the answer is no. It is way too warm, and so we do have to wait for that perfect window for them to come in when it's a little cooler, so that they can adjust to not only the new space but also the weather.  

Dr. Biology: 


All right, I've got to get back to play again. Okay, Because I would like to know if you have at least one and you might have more than one so you can pick one or two favorite experiences with the animals really looking like they're enjoying what they're doing, and something that maybe surprised you. 



You know, this to me is probably one of the funniest things I've ever gotten to witness. But we offer a lot of our animals foraging devices, and by foraging devices, I mean items that will extend the amount of time that they take to consume their food, and by that it might take longer for them to get it, and then they have to chew it, eat it, process it, and so these foraging devices are probably the most common behavioral nurturement that you'll see, and they can come in all shapes and sizes, all different materials, and they can be for the smallest of animals to the largest of animals. And there are some devices that are specifically made for animals, like for foraging, like, so people at home could use them for their pets too. And we have in our Harmony Farms, in our Children's Zoo area we have three equines. They are Strawberry the miniature horse, we have Dinky the miniature donkey, and Popeye the mule, and these guys, they were all given the same enrichment item, a pellet ball, and it has a hole in it so that the keepers can put their pelleted diet in it, and then they have to figure out, well, how do I get the pellets out and then I get to eat it. And every single one of them. They're lined up right next to each other on their exhibit. 


Every single one of them used a different method and I thought that was the most intriguing thing to watch, and any person that would come by all the guests I would excitedly tell them watch them, watch how they do it.  


So, it was really funny, because Strawberry would knock it around and would seem to get the most exercise from this. She would knock it around and then she would follow it and she would go all over trying to get the pellets out of this ball. Dinky was a little more reserved, would knock it around but would not go as far, wouldn't knock it as hard and still would get all the pellets out of it. But then you had Popeye, and Popeye would just put his nose on the end of it and he would shake it back and forth with his head, so he wasn't moving an inch, but he was getting all the pellets out of it. And I think that is just the funniest example of how behavioral enrichment it serves a goal. Every animal is going to problem solve differently, every animal is going to utilize it differently, and so they surprised us how they use them.  

Dr. Biology: 


Is there an animal that solved a problem that you were a little bit surprised and maybe solved a problem that you didn't want them to solve?  



Yes, definitely. It probably happens way more than I'd like to admit. But let's see, not too long ago I thought, well, how can we use cardboard boxes differently? Cardboard boxes are probably one of the most common items that we can give our animals, because we always have cardboard boxes, our staff can bring them in and we can use them in a variety of ways. But I thought you know, how can I make this cardboard box a little more challenging? So, I decided to put some obstacles or blockers in it. The keepers would put the food in it so it wouldn't just fall right out. 


And then I decided to essentially paper mâché the outside of it closed so they couldn't just open the box. There was a hole on top, so they'd have to kind of juggle it around. And I gave that to our orangutan keepers to give to our orangutans. And Wgasa, one of our males, decided I'm not going to lift this up and try and get the food items out of the hole, I'm just gonna rip off the paper mâché and then I'm gonna open it that way and I walked away from that feeling defeated. But you know what? It still achieved the goal of extending the amount of time it took him to eat his food and he definitely problem-solved. He just problem-solved in a way I didn't expect. 

Dr. Biology:


Yeah, very quick. When we talk about well-being, we talk about play, and these are all going to come together. It's about exercise. So, one of the things I'd like to know is how do you develop these activities that make sure that an animal is getting the right amount of exercise so that they can keep their health up? 



A lot of it relies on experience that the keepers have. Well, you know, I've done this at a different zoo with this animal. Maybe this can work with this animal. It takes a lot about their natural history. Well, how would they naturally move through their environment? How can we encourage that? 


It also takes into account safety. Safety is important as well. You can put a ball in an exhibit and get an animal to move that ball around. Predators or things like a tiger would be probably the best example of that because a ball could stimulate their prey drive where they see that movement and they want to chase it. But what if the exhibit has a slope in it? And what if that ball runs down and happens to hit the fence or hit the glass? So you do have to consider safety as well, and so a lot of that just relies on the experience of the keepers, the managers, the vet staff to ensure that the activity chosen is going to play into their natural history, their intended goal and their needs, but also be done in an appropriate and safe manner. 

Dr. Biology:


So, how do you know if an animal is in shape? 



That's a great question.  


So, our keepers, they form these great relationships with the animals and in general, there are several categories of behavioral enrichment, one of them being social, and social enrichment can include interacting with humans.  


So, we do that through training, and so the keepers are able to train their animals to go on a scale, get their weight. But then also, it's not just about the number on the scale, it's also about how they look, and so that's where we rely on the vet staff and their expertise and their knowledge to come in and get a good look at the animal and say well, they're at a decent weight, but maybe their body condition is not where we need it to be, maybe they need to gain more weight, maybe they need to lose a little weight. They do definitely get all the food they could possibly want, but we like to make sure that they're still healthy. So we look at their weight, we look at their body condition, and then they'll make adjustments from there as needed, and that might include diet decreases, that might include more exercise, providing enrichment that will help increase their exercise and movement, and that's not just for their weight as well, that's also can be for their joint health, things like that, so it really is tailored to the individual.  

Dr. Biology: 


It's the same thing that we have to do as we get older. We need to make sure that we continue to exercise for our joints for our bone strength for our muscles. After, I'd say, roughly 40 years of age for humans, you start to lose muscle mass. If you don't use it, you are going to lose it. Well on, ask a Biologist. Before my guests can leave, I always ask three questions All right? So are you ready? I'm ready, all right. When did you first know you wanted to work at a zoo?  



I would say probably when I was young, I was probably around 10, 11 years old and I actually went to SeaWorld, and I was inspired from my experience there. And it wasn't the experience of seeing the shows or seeing all of the animals, my experience was at the end of the night, on the way out of the park. We're heading to our car. We just decided to make one last stop over near where the Orca whales were, and just so happened that one of the trainers was out there talking to this animal wasn't really interacting with their animal and any formal capacity, just talking, and you can really see that bond and that trainer spent time talking to me. All about them. 


You know their natural history and this individual, what they like, and from there on I was so inspired on how a person could have that great of a relationship with an animal and from there I just knew I wanted to work with animals and it probably wasn't until I was in college that I just happened to start volunteering at an aquarium in their husbandry department taking care of their animals that I realized this is exactly where I want to be in a zoo or an aquarium doing this job. So, what's your degree in? I have a degree in organismal biology. It used to be zoology, but it got combined with botany and ecology, so overall organismal biology and that's what I studied all throughout college and volunteered at the same time, and it was a lot of fun.  



Dr. Biology: 


Now, I'm always a little bit mean on the second question, because we learned how you got to where you want to be and almost every guest I haven't. I don't think I've ever had a guest that didn't love what they do, yeah, which is great, but I'm going to take it all away for this thought experiment. You're not going to be able to be at a zoo at all, okay, and I'm going to take away probably teaching, because there's a lot of teaching in your, in what you do. What would you be or what would you do if you could do anything?  



Definitely would still be in the realm of science. I'm a science person. I think that what has always fascinated me and where I've lived, I've always been fascinated by them is storms. For some reason I don't know why Storms are very interesting to me. They make me feel very humble about where I live, and so I think I would want to do something related to whether probably not to go as far as storm chasing, but I think that would be really fun and interesting to learn about.  

Dr. Biology: 


Well, you talk about unpredictable animals, but storms are about as unpredictable as it gets Exactly. Wow, hmm. Yeah, I was just gonna say you're gonna be a storm chaser, but you're gonna go a little bit short of being a storm chaser. 



Probably. I don't know if I have the gut for that or something.  

Dr. Biology: 


I'm with you. I think I'll watch it from afar. So the last question, because we get a lot of questions from young and old or older people, I should say, that really love animals and actually would like to work at a zoo what advice would you have for someone who wants to have your job?  



Yeah, I started out as a zookeeper, and I think to get into where I'm at now which I absolutely love my job I think that you'd have to start out with having that hands-on experience of working with the animals and truly understanding them and their behavior and how you work with them.  


In order to become a zookeeper, though, you definitely need to have both the education.  


So you'd want to go to school, you'd want to study something like biology, zoology or even psychology, because, again, behavior is a huge part of it and then from there it's getting hands-on experience. So, for me, I started volunteering while I was in college, and I did that on Fridays and I went to class Monday through Thursday and from there I did internships. So, I would take the summer to try and go get more experience with different animals, and that hands-on experience is the most valuable thing that you can have. The education helps fuel your understanding, but the hands-on experience is really the know-how, and so that's the best way to get into the zoo field, to become a zookeeper, and from there, I guess the best piece of advice for anybody is, when you want to get into the zoo field, be open to the animals you want to work with, because there's not always going to be jobs with the very specific animals that you think you want to work with, and so be open to everything, because they might surprise you.  

Dr. Biology: 


Right, I hadn't thought about that. Yeah, someone might say I only want to work with the rhinos.  




Dr. Biology: 


That sounded so much fun, but you actually started out. I'm not mistaken as someone who worked with cats the big cats, right.  



So, my first experience was in a children's zoo with more domestic animals, goats and sheep and chickens, things like that and then I did actually quickly move over into a carnivore department, working with tigers and lions and cheetahs, and I definitely think carnivores are my love. Specifically, otters are a huge favorite of mine. But had I not done the other experience, I wouldn't have gotten to learn about other animals and experience other things, and really surprised by how much I enjoyed working with some of the other species that I've gotten to work with.  

Dr. Biology: 


Until you actually live and work with them, you really don't know them, do you?




Dr. Biology: 

Well, thank you so much for taking time out from your great group of animals that you could spend some time with us.  



Yeah, thank you so much for having me.  

Dr. Biology: 


You have been listening to Ask a Biologist and my guest has been Daniel Wong. The behavioral enrichment and animal welfare coordinator at the Phoenix Zoo. Now, like most of our podcasts, we will be sure to add links and additional information in the show notes, so be sure to check those out. The Ask a Biologist podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grass Roots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu, or you can just use one of your favorite search tools and enter the words Ask a Biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Zoo Animal Fun, Games, and Wellbeing
  • Episode number: 129
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: September 5, 2023
  • Date accessed: June 12, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/zoo-animal-wellbeing

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2023, September 05). Zoo Animal Fun, Games, and Wellbeing (129) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/zoo-animal-wellbeing

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Zoo Animal Fun, Games, and Wellbeing." Produced by Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. September 5, 2023. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/zoo-animal-wellbeing.

MLA Style

"Zoo Animal Fun, Games, and Wellbeing." Ask A Biologist Podcast from Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist, 05 September, 2023, askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/zoo-animal-wellbeing.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/

Chutti the one-horn rhino playing with one of his enrichment toys.

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