Zoos around the world are increasingly interested in enriching their animals. You are concerned about the psychological effects of boredom and are now confident that the physical side is under control. Some run scent enrichment programs, and it is believed that what they offer their big cats could help control domestic cats’ need for roaming.
Cats allowed outside the home cause terrible damage to wildlife, especially in Australia. The survival of many species depends on the control of these furry assassins. Attempts to hinder hunting behavior with bells and even hair ties work to some extent, but the only way to completely stop a cat’s reign of terror is to keep it indoors – with the associated risk of boredom.
After learning what stimulates the larger members of the cat family, Victoria Zoos hope to share that knowledge with those who decide whether to chase their cat down the backyard like the African plains.
Ben Gulli of the Werribee Open Plains Zoo told IFLScience that her current focus is on bringing a variety of scents to her animals. This keeps the cat’s domain an interesting place for creatures that rely on their noses as much as their eyes. For the lions and cheetahs of the zoos, this means that they leave gorilla beds lying around, for example. “It stimulates your hunting insects,” said Gulli. The zoo also offers more unfamiliar scents like perfumes, coffee grounds, and vegemite – a product that is alien to most non-Australian people, let alone animals. Even so, Gulli said that its obscurity led the animals to examine it and keep them vigilant.
Unfortunately, Gulli said, Gorilla Poo is not something the zoo can market to those who live with a cat, though they could make a fortune if they could. Quarantine laws never allowed this to happen, and given the fear of zoonoses at an all-time high, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
However, Gulli recommends other scents that cats find interesting, such as basil or cinnamon. These, he suggests, can be scattered around the house in unexpected places or put in cardboard boxes with a few leaves to keep the Felis catus busy. “One problem is that cats sometimes pee on them,” Gulli admitted. The zoo’s cheetah does this with strange smells, as do their servants. “They want their territory to smell like them.”
Servals are one of the feline family members the zoo encourages, and may have more in common with domestic cats than they do with lions. Photo credit: Hugh Caldwell-Ross
To address this problem, Gulli suggests strategically placing cat fortification, including the judicious use of straw.
On the other hand, big cats also like to roll in strange smells, especially in the gorilla litter. Gulli believes this is in part to mask their own scent and allow them to approach the prey undetected. The lionesses also like to wrestle in coffee grounds.
Odor build-up is widespread among zoos, Gulli admitted, but adds, “We’re always looking for something new.”
Werribee’s hope is that ordinary members of the public will take up the idea. “We are committed to safe cats and wildlife,” added Gulli, noting that cats that live their lives indoors live longer.
The zoo also uses tools such as coursing bait or swinging food around a pole to keep the lions from chasing moving prey. However, such ideas have already used widespread pet store counterparts filled with toys with feathers on the end or laser pointers to keep kittens excited.
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