Playing with Your Food Can Give You Food for Thought

How much effort do you put into preparing or acquiring your meals? Do you take a few steps to the fridge or place a call to the local pizza place? For the animals at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, the behavioral effort behind meal time is an important part of their daily, enriched feeding experience. One way we encourage our animal family to use their natural skills and diligence when gathering and eating their food is through items known as puzzle feeders.

You may be wondering; what are puzzle feeders? Well, puzzle feeders are essentially any safe and species-appropriate enrichment item that can be physically manipulated and encourage an animal to extract their diet. Like a KONG® toy for a dog, this enrichment item encourages animals to use their physical characteristics, such as their tongue, paws and teeth, as well as their own problem-solving ability to maneuver food through an opening.

So why not offer food in a way where no skill or effort is required? Puzzle feeders and other activities provide species with an important opportunity to mimic foraging behaviors, similar to what they would experience in the wild. They also fall into a behavioral phenomenon known as contrafreeloading. This phenomenon provides animals a choice between problem-solving for their food and obtaining food without effort.  A majority of the time, animals choose to utilize their mental and physical energy to obtain their food via puzzle feeders, even if additional food is easily accessible. Benefits from adding puzzle feeders into the animals’ daily feeding times include increased time spent foraging, opportunities to express species-appropriate behaviors and overall mental stimulation.

Whatever the puzzle feeder, all follow the same process to ensure the item is goal-oriented, species-appropriate and safe for the animals and humans. The process starts with a behavioral goal. Animal caretakers research their animals’ natural history, learning about their species’ activity pattern. This includes questions such as “Does the animal naturally forage at morning, night or dusk?” and “How much time is spent foraging for food?” Finding answers to these questions helps caretakers to identify the animal’s natural habitat and availability of its food sources, as well as the behavioral strategies used by that animal to gather and process its food.

Once the behavioral goal is selected, caretakers use animal-safe materials to build and implement the device. Finally, to confirm the puzzle feeder meets the behavioral goal, the animal’s interaction with the feeder is observed.  

Puzzle feeders come in many forms! When adventuring through the Zoo, you may have encountered many examples of them. Maybe you’ve noticed the blue, hanging barrels for the Asian elephants, filled with hay diet, and elevated up to 21 feet to encourage trunk use and manipulation. Or, perhaps you’ve witnessed the grizzly bears extract honey and insects from large logs with purposeful holes drilled into it, encouraging natural behaviors such as scratching and clawing. Even a hanging bamboo tube with hidden wooden, branches inside can encourage the giraffes to manipulate their tongue past natural obstacles as they would when feeding in the wild.

Satisfying more than their animal’s daily nutritional needs, Zoo caretakers regularly offer feeding challenges to match the animal’s natural skills through effective, puzzle feeder enrichment. The next time you visit the Zoo, keep an eye out for these unique feeding items in the animal habitats. They offer a great opportunity for guests to observe and learn about each animal’s natural abilities!

- Heather Guillory, behavioral husbandry associate

Photos: Heather Guillory

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