During their day, caretakers make many decisions for our animals to ensure optimal welfare. To ensure they stay as healthy as possible, we protect them from severe weather, develop specialized diet plans, and provide lots of interesting elements in their habitats to guarantee species-appropriate opportunities. While this can result in some choices being made for our animals, we are always looking for ways to make certain our animals can make choices in their day as well. In fact, choice is one of the most important concepts we use in the care of our animals.
Most animals spend a good portion of their day, both in the wild and in human care, foraging for food. Snakes, gorillas, giraffes and more spend a significant time tracking down and consuming what makes up their diet. In human care, diets are prepared to ensure the highest nutrition and then plans are developed for how to offer the diet in the most species-appropriate manner. This can include scattering food, hanging it or utilizing enrichment devices that encourage problem solving just to name a few. The one constant in this process is the caretaker connection. But what if the animals were able to decide when they were hungry and when they wanted to feed themselves separately from when caretakers were available? This was the thought that began the development of incorporating human technology into animal diet planning resulting in the Animal Vending Machine.
The Animal Vending Machine is an enrichment tool developed by WildThink that is an automated search-and-find game for animals. Similar to in the wild, animals are able to search their environments for hidden tokens and bring them back to the machine to exchange them for food. Once tokens are hidden in the animal’s habitat, the animal is able to choose when they want to find tokens and redeem them completely independent from the caretakers. As the animals become familiar with the process, tokens can be placed in the habitat in creative ways such as hidden in substrate, frozen in ice blocks or placed in puzzles and toys. By changing how tokens are hidden, the animals are encouraged to be active all throughout the day, exploring their habitat and solving problems similar to those they would encounter in the wild.
The Oklahoma City Zoo is one of only a few Association of Zoos and Aquariums member zoos collaborating with WildThink to develop this device. Our first machine recently arrived and will be first implemented into our primate department before being offered to other species in the near future. Primates were chosen as the first to use this device as most of them are already trained to “swap” items as part of their behavioral training. It should be simple to show the animals the concept of “swapping” the tokens at the machine for food items allowing them to begin using this as a part of their daily opportunities. While the redemption part of the device will often be out of sight, guests may catch a glimpse of the unique tokens that will be hidden and found by the animals. These tokens are specially designed to be compatible with the redemption device and are bright pink in color. Great apes at other zoos have been observed using their cheek pouches to store tokens they will be redeeming at the device to maximize their trips from searching to redemption showing how smart they truly are!
We are excited to be continuously looking for ways to offer the most innovative and advanced animal care to our animals. It is our hope that partnerships like these will ensure technology that has shown to improve humans’ lives can be used in creative ways to continue the high standard of animal welfare we provide.
Kim Leser, OKC Zoo’s behavioral husbandry and welfare manager