Okha checked on her presents sitting under her Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree, adorned with colorful paper chains.
She sniffed and nibbled on the snowman wrapping paper as she tried to get a better look at the treasures inside. While she was in no rush to open the presents, her keepers couldn’t wait. Or else her gifts might spoil.
Okha and the other cats didn’t ask for toys this Christmas. Instead, they got the gift of grub — dead baby chicks in this case.
“It’s part of their natural behaviors to tear everything apart, and then they get a reward like a chick for it,” said Jessica Grill, a Northern Trails zookeeper.
Gift giving is a way for zookeepers to stimulate their animals and enrich animal welfare at the zoo.
Okha and the zoo’s two other Amur leopards received a visit from the Minnesota Zoo elves recently. The leopard’s zookeepers have spent weeks preparing holiday gifts for the cats and making “bloodsicle” molds.
“All of this is safe, nontoxic,” Grill said. “If they ingested any of it for any reason ... it will pass through.”
While Okha kept watch of her gift-wrapped chicks, her mate, Chobby, took little interest in the presents, allowing her to have all the fun.
In the enclosure next door, Chobby’s 4-year-old daughter, Tamara, stealthily eyed her gift before sticking out her tongue for a lick. Tamara’s zookeepers had used a rope to hang a Christmas wreath popsicle made of leftover blood from horse meat. But not even the icy treat or the 10-degree weather could help cool down the cat, who was in heat.
Zookeepers have a running Amazon wish list for all their animals that includes items like Jovan Musk by Jovan for Men and essential oils.
Cologne is a highly requested item among the cats, but not to cover up the fact that they hate baths. The scents often have hormones that the cats respond to.
“Basically, we joke that the worse it smells,” Grill said, “the better they like it.”
December is a busy month for the zoo’s Santa, Terah Grace.
Grace, the zoo’s animal enrichment training coordinator, updates and checks off items on the Amazon wish list. While she doesn’t decide which animal has been naughty or nice, each item on the list has to have her approval, along with that of zoo supervisors and veterinarians.
“I get out there and help all the departments as needed,” she said.
Grace recently took on the enrichment trainer role, in which she introduces various toys to stimulate natural behaviors. Along with the wish list, the zoo works with companies that design enrichment products for specific species. One company created an underwater forage box for seals to scavenge for fish at the bottom of their tank.
Animals receive gifts on their birthdays and even on Halloween. Gifts are not only given to encourage play but also rest. Some animals are gifted with special bedding.
“Usually, we do something special for them on their birthdays — either give them a new toy or we will make an ice cake,” Grace said. “We will freeze ice and fruit, fish or meat — whatever the animal eats.”
Enrichment items are not always on display for guests to see. Zookeepers usually take their time hiding and incorporating enrichment items into the zoo habitats. Zoo guests can see the gifts on animal play days when zookeepers bring out special toys for the animals.
Last Friday, Garra, a tamandua (a species of anteater), had her own play day. Zookeepers rubbed lemon grass essential oils and DKNY Be Delicious perfume on Garra’s movable stump exhibit to coax the tamandua out.
Ron Sticha held his 2-year-old granddaughter up on his shoulders as she looked down on the furry anteater slowly climbing along the exhibit’s branches.
“She loves coming,” he said. “We come four out of five days a week.”
For zoo-goers, animal enrichment offers a chance to see that zoo animals are a bit like them. They like fancy perfumes, new toys and shiny objects.
So if it’s good enough for your loved one, a zoo animal might like it, too.