Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Wild Encounters at the MNS EcoKids Zoo Enrichment Workshop
I first signed up as a Born Free Foundation Zoo Check Volunteer back in the mid-1990s, when animal welfare literature took weeks to arrive by snail-mail. My early visits to our National Zoo convinced me that Malaysian zoos, like most Asian zoos (then), fell way below acceptable animal welfare and education efforts.
Many years of campaigning later, I started volunteering with Zoo Negara as a way of learning more about managing and operating captive wildlife facilities and of becoming part of the solution to the problems associated with zoos and keeping wildlife in captivity.
I became determined that our National Zoo needs the support of Malaysians, and so as the coordinator of the Green Living and Eco Kids Special Interest Groups under the Malaysian Nature Society, I worked together with the Zoo Education Unit to organise a Zoo Volunteer Programme and Enrichment Workshop for members of the Malaysian Nature Society.
Though many of us do not enjoy seeing animals in captivity, 41 Malaysian Nature Society members were keen to learn how to improve the quality of life of animals at Zoo Negara. Zoo Education Officer Edwina and team were there to greet us when we arrived on the morning of 28th July 2013 and we were taken to the Enrichment Centre, where we were to prepare food puzzles and treats for the lions, tigers, tapirs and elephants, to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
It was also a good exercise in repurposing, as I had instructed the workshop participants to collect cardboard boxes, coconut shells and toilet roll tubes for the Enrichment Centre to be converted into toys and puzzles for the animals. The above are some of the enrichment materials and tools stored in the Enrichment Centre.
The children learned about animals' natural behaviours and how to encourage animals to display these behaviours to ensure that the animals stay active, healthy, stimulated and happy.
Due to the large size of our group, some of the participants chose to go on a Science Walk with Dr. Ille Gebeshuber, who is not only a Professor in Physics but also a dedicated MNS member and volunteer.
With the help of their parents, the children who stayed behind at the Enrichment Centre carved and hollowed out pumpkins to be stuffed with meat for the lions and tigers. The pumpkins would then be concealed in boxes or suspended from ropes to stimulate the big cats’ natural hunting and seeking instincts.
One of the mothers holds the pumpkin steady while a young participant drills the holes for the ropes.
The other participants cut up fruits and vegetables for the tapirs and elephants.
A group of participants wrapped a mixture of rice, palm sugar and bananas in banana leaves to be presented to the elephants.
The children put fruits and vegetable pieces on skewers and poked the sharp ends into a banana trunk to create a whimsical fruit cocktail bar for the tapirs.
The Science Walk group joined us at 10 a.m. for the Animal Enrichment Observation. It was not merely a session during which we observed “cute animals doing cute things”, but an important and educational lesson on animals’ natural behaviours and social needs. Education Officer Edwina must be commended on her short interactive lessons on snare traps and the wildlife trade, habitat loss, why some animals could not be reintroduced into the wild, the need for zoos and animal sanctuaries, the reason for the Zoo’s ban on Styrofoam, and the conservation status of many animals (i.e. least concern, endangered and extinct).
Here, some of the children learn how snare traps work and how to inform an adult and contact the Wildlife Hotline if they find snare traps in the jungle (these kids do go camping and hiking with their parents!), and how to report on restaurants offering wildlife products.
Well, there goes the cow! One of the tigers has found the pumpkin concealed in a box decorated to resemble a cartoon cow, but he wasn’t hungry enough to have his breakfast immediately.
The lions found their pumpkins within minutes, but seemed more interested in guarding the meat and casting jealous glares at their neighbours, the tigers.
Here comes the MNS mascots, the tapirs! Their proboscis wagged merrily when they smelled the fruits. And no, they didn’t hurt themselves on the satay skewers. Aren’t they clever?
Siti and Sibol, two of the Asian Elephants, go on a treasure hunt for the food parcels. Thank you for accepting our little gifts, dear lovely elephants!
Siti the Asian Elephant says: “Reach out and touch somebody today!”
Aravind and me, the happy volunteers as usual.
In an ideal world, animals would be able to live peacefully in the wild without human interference. However, with the number of threats to wildlife such as deforestation, poaching and hunting, zoos and sanctuaries have to be set up to provide safe living spaces for animals, in particular, captive-bred or confiscated wildlife who can no longer survive in the wild. It must be remembered that zoos and sanctuaries can never be a good substitute for life in the wild. Animals in captivity can and do get restless, bored, depressed and frustrated, and start displaying stereotypic behaviour such as swaying, rocking, biting, begging and overgrooming their fur or feathers to the point that bald patches appear. It is hoped that our little contributions helped to make the animals’ lives a little more fun and interesting.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Edwina and her hardworking team as well as our ever-obliging Dr. Ille for their time, effort and assistance. May we all continue to do what we can to help and protect wildlife and the natural world and to keep the spirit of voluntarism alive.