Creating Toys for Critters

Enrichment committee members

In 2009, co-chairs of the Animal Enrichment Committee are shown holding a handmade nest box for the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Humboldt penguins. From left are Jan Nosse, Jodi Grzeczka and Mary Pat Schuetz.

Tigers paw at papier-mâché Easter eggs stuffed with food. Elephants dig fruits and veggies out of frozen “treatsicles” with their trunks. Humboldt penguins nest in colorful boxes made of plastic crates. That’s just a sampling of the animal “toys” created by the Animal Enrichment Committee of Zoo Pride, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s volunteer auxiliary.

Enrichment activities let Zoo creatures use natural instincts such as hunting and foraging. Many enrichment toys encourage exercise and break up the animal’s routine. “I think of enrichment as direct customer service for the animals,” says committee co-chair Mary Pat Schuetz.  Lions and wolves, for example, like pouncing on papier-mâché sculptures shaped like prey animals, one of the committee’s projects. Other creations range from grape-vine wreaths stuffed with food for the primates to holiday-themed gift packages for animals from bears to hyenas. The committee even makes enrichment items for animals’ special occasions. When Zero* the polar bear turned 19, he received a papier-mâché gift box that zookeepers filled with fish and magazine perfume samples (bears like to sniff scents).  These projects are so important to animal well-being that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires accredited zoos to have a formal enrichment program and staff to lead these efforts.

Spending time with animal keepers is one of the committee’s perks, says another co-chair, Jodi Grzeczka. Volunteers work closely with the Zoo’s curators and veterinarians when making food toys such as holiday “cookies.” These treats can have ingredients as varied as bananas, fruit juice, food pellets and sweet potatoes, depending on an animal’s nutritional needs, explains Grzeczka. Keepers and volunteers also work together to create low-sugar treats for diabetic animals such as Kitty the bonobo and heart-healthy, low-calorie snacks for the gorillas. (These great apes tend to suffer from cardiac disease.)

No animal is too big or too small for handmade treats. The committee once concocted a treatsicle that fit into a 10-gallon bucket for the Zoo’s African elephants, Ruth and Brittany. It took a truck and two staffers to cart it from the Zoo’s food warehouse to the elephant exhibit. The smallest enrichment toy, says co-chair Jan Nosse, was a tiny treatsicle for one of the Zoo’s sugar gliders (a small mammal). In 2009, the committee’s 50 members made 200 holiday cookies, 88 treatsicles and more than 70 papier-mâché Easter eggs (about 10 volunteers work on each project). The projects are enriching for volunteers, too, says Nosse, because they get to be creative and get to watch animals dig vigorously into their toys. Grzeczka remembers spotting Moses, one of the Zoo’s camels, happily gnawing on a treatsicle with his young son, Franklin. Tommy the orangutan liked to playfully chase former partner Saba for a taste of her food toys. Says Grzeczka: “Enrichment is a wonderful diversion for the animals.”

* Zero went to the Seneca Park Zoo in New York in January 2010 to breed.

Meet other volunteers here.