Big Cat Fever – Zoo Exhibits Educate While Promoting Visitation

Mysterious and powerful, lions, tigers and other big cats are always top attractions at zoos.  While zoo visitors love to see the wild animals, few understand the work it takes to ensure the well-being and safety of both the cats and their human guests.
Cincinnati Zoo is home to lions, Malayan tigers, white tigers, snow leopards, cheetahs and cougars. As Curator of Mammals for the past 16 years and a zoo employee for 38 years, Mike Dulaney understands the challenges that come with housing big cats.  The zoo has undergone a series of renovations to accommodate their feline residents and will undertake more in the next few years.  A five-phase Africa project is underway that includes renovations and improvements to the big cats’ habitats. Cat Canyon will open the summer of 2012, and Phase III of the expansion will open the summer of 2013. The first three phases will total about $32 million. The budget for the final two phases has yet to be determined.
“So much planning and designing went into this exhibit especially where the big cats are concerned,” Dulaney said. “We are maximizing space, designing a new holding building. We want to make the area as big as possible but of course, where predators are concerned, containment is a major issue.”
The lions have called the Cincinnati Zoo home for about 13 years while the Malayan tigers and snow leopards have been there for about six months.  Dulaney noted that for each type of cat, a different containment system is needed.
“The lions and tigers are not big leapers so their habitat requirements are different from snow leopards who love to leap.  We have different landscaping and improved the fronts of the exhibit or added netting depending on each animal’s needs.”
The zoo, which welcomes about 1.2 million visitors each year, is also planning on incorporating an interpretative aspect to the exhibits so that the zoo can teach guests about the natural habitats of the big cats and why it is so important to conserve those regions of the world.
“We have a Cheetah run which allows guests to watch as a cheetah chases a lure. Guests see how a Cheetah uses its tail for both balance and steering. It’s important to show visitors what an animal is like in nature. This way they appreciate the animal and the natural environment from which it comes.”
Steve Bircher is curator of carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri. The zoo, which had a record attendance in 2011 of more than 3 million visitors, is home to African lions, Amur tigers, jaguars, Amur leopards, snow leopards and cheetahs, which are all housed in its Big Cat Country.
“Big Cat Country is an excellent example of a naturalistic exhibit that provides the cats with a diverse environment that enhances their natural behaviors,” said Bircher. “Each of the seven habitats includes a natural grass substrate, Gunnite rockwork, a pool, a heated den and a mixture of trees and shrubs.  The habitats for the lions, tigers and jaguars also have waterfalls. The carnivore keepers provide the cats with a diverse mixture of enrichment opportunities on a daily basis that include special food items, boomer balls, frozen meat or fish icicles, beef knuckle bones and rawhide bones.”
The St. Louis Zoo recently repainted and restored Big Cat Country’s Gunite rockwork to its original coloration.  Plans have also been made to install several shade structures over the upper plaza area in front of the four smaller cat habitats to provide relief for visitors while viewing the animals.
Bircher believes that while maintaining natural habitats is essential for the health and well being of the animals, it is equally important to teach visitors about the cats and why they are so vital to our planet and why their natural habitats need to be preserved.
“When we have a public event with a big cat theme, the zoo’s education department, develops and delivers games, activities and educational crafts and take-home materials tied into the theme,” he noted.  “The big cats are very popular so we use them as examples to teach biology, ecology, evolution and conservation biology, especially through the examples in our WildCare Institute Cheetah Conservation Center, which also supports lion conservation in key areas in Africa.”
To further enhance education, the St. Louis Zoo offers tours for school groups and scouts to Big Cat Country. There are also behind-the-scene tours that feature the area and a summer camp that offers activities and programs focused on conservation.
As General Curator of Animal Collections at the North Carolina Zoo, Ken Reininger wants zoo guests to not only see the beauty of wild animals but the important role they play in nature too. The North Carolina Zoo is home to African lions, mountain lions, bobcats and ocelots.
“When visitors come to the zoo we like them to witness what the animals would be like in their natural homes,” Reininger explained. For example, African lions are social animals so we have to manage the introduction of new animals to their group plus we have to make sure we are always equipped to raise families of cubs. We have to know the personalities of each animal.  The bobcats and ocelots don’t require as much attention when it comes to their social environment, but they do require us to design a habitat that keeps them busy and entertained. Mountain lions are solitary creatures so we have to take care when we bring two mountain lions together that they can live with each other.  The habitats are a very important part of this process.”
Reininger believes that with any big cat exhibit, precautions must be maintained and proper procedures always followed.
“We don’t train our cats to do tricks. We train our cats to move from one space to another so that we can feed them and clean their habitats,” he noted. “We train them to show us their various body parts so that the vets and medical staff can examine them from a safe distance. These are wild animals and predators and should never be treated as pets. We have to respect them. Too often these animals are kept in ill-equipped facilities where operators interact with them on a non-safe level. These animals cannot be domesticated, and to proclaim otherwise is the wrong message, and it diminishes in the human mind the need to preserve the natural habitats from where these animals came.”
The North Carolina Zoo is looking to expand its Ocelot exhibit and already has preliminary drawings completed.  The budget for the expansion will range from $500,000 to $750,000.
“We would like to bring the ocelots outside and expand their sensory experience. At present their habitat is indoors. We would like them to be able to experience nature more fully.”
Cheetahs, African lions and Amur tigers make their home at the Indianapolis Zoo, which welcomes more than 1 million visitors per year. The zoo maintains adequate room for additional animals should they come to the zoo through breeding or acquisition from other facilities. As Manager of the Plains Exhibit, Barre Fields overseas the habitats of the big cats.
“When housing large cats like tigers, cheetahs and lions, we always take into consideration the capabilities of the animal, both mental and physical as well as the requirements of the species,” explained Fields.  “Environments must be tailored to the animals’ physical and psychological needs for shelter, temperature, proper substrate, how strong the animal is, how far it can jump or climb, and its psychological need to do so. Containment must be adequate to protect both the animals as well as the visitors,” Fields noted. “However, we still must allow adequate viewing and comfortable settings. Lions are big, powerful animals that can climb but are not very good at it, so trees provided for the animal’s comfort as well as visitor enjoyment need to be selected and trimmed so they do not allow any limbs to grow over the containment. Cheetahs are very fast and excellent jumpers and climbers, so their containment needs to have overhangs and trees placed in the strategic areas to allow them comfortable areas to lie on or climb but without allowing them the opportunity to leave their exhibit.”
In 2010, the zoo opened the interactive Race-a-Cheetah Exhibit. In this exhibit, for a nominal feel, guests race against a series of linear lights that move as quickly as a cheetah.  The human/cheetah drag strip is located next to the cheetah exhibit giving the cheetahs the chance to watch the “race” and interact and run alongside the guests if they want.
The Tiger Forest Exhibit opened in 2011 and includes good visibility into the exhibit.
“Visitors are able to see tigers jump on the rockwork and tree props and play in the water,” Fields said.  “The tigers get to choose where they want to be on exhibit. They have shady cool spots, the pool and basking areas to nap.”
While providing a natural setting for the cats, the new exhibits also have a far-reaching effect. Through the exhibits, the zoo raises money for conservation of habitats in various regions in the world. The Race-a-Cheetah Exhibit supports the Cheetah Conservation Fund to secure a future for cheetahs in Namibia.  The Zoo’s Tiger Forest exhibit allows for the study of the tigers in Lazovsky Reserve, Russia. Cameras are placed on the reserve and track the tigers’ movements and development.  The Indianapolis Zoo also supports the African Wildlife Foundation, which provides predator-proof fencing for the Massai people. The fencing not only stops lions from eating livestock, but stops humans from killing lions in retaliation.
The 30-acre Pueblo Zoo in Pueblo Colorado is home to more than 400 animals, and welcomes approximately 90,000 guests each year.  Among the animals are a male and female lion.
“Our exhibit opened in 1995 and can house up to six lions. Even though we only have two lions at present, we want to be prepared in case the lions breed,” noted Marilyn McBirney, general curator and conservation manager. “When there are cubs, the SSP (Species Survival Plan Program) requires zoos to keep cubs for two years before moving them to other zoos.”
While the zoo now has no plans for expansion of their physical facilities, they do always look for ways to educate their guests about the important ecological roles these animals play.
“The lions are very popular, so we use this popularity to teach visitors about how they interact in nature. We talk about their role as predator and the unique social structure that exists in a pride,” said McBirney. “We also explain how these big cats make adaptations to habitats, their hunting techniques, why it is so important to promote conservation of natural habitats and why they should never be pets.” –

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