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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Exploradio: Modern Zoo Design Presents Choices for Animals and People

Our local zoos are changing.  The Akron Zoo is in the midst of a $17 million expansion, making new homes for lions and tigers.  The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo recently opened exhibits featuring Asian wildlife and rare Siberian tigers.

In this week’s Exploradio, we examine the research that goes into making captive animals a little more comfortable.

Laura Bernstein-Kurtycz is holding a piece of crisp romaine, waiting for a passing giraffe.  “Here comes Jasmine, I think she spotted my lettuce."  

Photo of giraffe at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
The giraffe feeding deck is a popular feature at the zoo. Researchers determined the best schedule for the animals and visitors.

We're on the giraffe feeding deck at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo where some of Bernstein-Kurtycz's research has centered in recent years. 

She's a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University studying the behavior of animals in captivity. 

Suddenly Jasmine's head appears at the railing.  A giant purple tongue darts out of the giraffe's head, it snatches the lettuce, and she starts munching. 

With soulful eyes just inches away, the giraffe feeding deck is a perfect way to come face to face with these majestic animals.

But Bernstein-Kurtycz discovered that when the feeding deck opened a few years ago, it altered the animals’ behavior.

photo of child feeding giraffe with long tongue
The giraffe's tongue can be up to 20 inches long. The dark color is believed to help prevent sunburn.

“We found that the giraffes spent a lot of their time pacing near the runway to get into the barn at the end of the day.”

The animals had learned that there was no point in doing anything other than anxiously waiting for more food inside.

“They were done. They were ready to go in," says Bernstein-Kurtycz, "they knew it was the end of the day.”

The solution she came up with last fall was to stagger the schedule to keep the giraffes guessing.

“Now lettuce feeding goes practically up to when the zoo closes, and in fact we saw a dramatic reduction in that pacing to go in.”

It’s an example of how research can help direct animal behavior.

A menu of choices for tigers
We see different research goals at Rosebrough Tiger Passage, which, since it opened in 2016, has been home to Cleveland’s two Siberian tigers.

Photo of Charles Ritlzer
Charles Ritlzer is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University. He's studying how providing choices benefits animals in captivity.

That’s where we meet Charles Ritzler, also a grad student at Case.  “The question I’m focused on is introducing choice into zoo animals’ lives.”

He’s monitoring how the tigers use separate spaces. “The four exhibits we have are the river, the creek, meadow, and ridge, and river and ridge can be connected by this amazing overhead tunnel.”

It’s basically a bridge 15 feet off the ground built with locally sourced black locust lumber.

One tiger, Klechka, is exercising his options.  “He was just sitting in the creek exhibit," says Ritzler, "and now he moved into the meadow exhibit, so he’s actively taking advantage of the choice we’re giving him, which is really exciting to see.”

But the bridge is closed today. Ritzler says access to each enclosure is scheduled to keep the two males separate. 

Photo of an Amur tiger
Klechka is one two Siberian, or Amur, tigers in Cleveland. More than half of the roughly 900 remaining Amur tigers live in zoos.

Meanwhile, Klechka has caught scent of something. His nose wrinkles and his long tongue dangles out of his mouth.

“Part of that is from panting to cool him down," says Ritzler.

"Also they do this really cool behavior called the flehman response where they flick their tongue out and it brings in particles in the air to their vomeronasal organ and that’s another way they can investigate the environment around them.”

Ritzler is thrilled to see rare tigers behaving naturally, while in captivity, just feet away from us.

More than animals on exhibit
The new tiger exhibit replaced a design from the 1960’s, where deep moats separated people from animals.

“We’re getting away from that old style of kind-of looking down at the animals,” says Holly Grambort, lead architect for the project with the Cleveland firm Van Auken Akins.

“Conservation-wise, education-wise, and care-wise," says Grambort, "people have evolved their thinking for what the zoo should be and what the zoo should do.”

Photo of new Pride of Africa exhibit at the Akron Zoo
The Pride of Africa exhibit at the Akron Zoo features a concrete and steel termite mound framing 'pride rock', a feature that will be heated in colder weather to encourage lions to sit there.

Conservation and education are big themes at the Akron Zoo, where director of capital projects Chris Norman gives me a tour of the soon to be finished Pride of Africa exhibit.

He says the three acre sight is based on a traditional Maasai encampment, designed with consultation from an Africa-based conservation group called Rebuilding the Pride.

The lion enclosure will have room for two separate lion groups, starting with the current pair Tamarr and Mandisa.

Perspective will be an important part of the experience.

“We’re looking up at the cats, they’re looking down on us,” says Norman, "the lions will have a great view of Akron.”

Photo of Chris Norman
The Akron Zoo's Chris Norman spent the winter overseeing construction of the new Pride of Africa exhibit.

Norman says the exhibit tells a story of coexistence with the natural world.

“The theme for Pride of Africa really is about ways we as a society can modify our behaviors to benefit the natural environment.”

Captive animals, he says, remind us of our obligation to protect wild places.  

“Zoos and aquariums, at their best," says Norman, "are an inspiration in our daily lives to make the connection that what we do matters.”

The current thinking in exhibit design, while giving animals choices, also stresses the choice we have, of whether to make sure they still have a home here on earth.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.