Zoos around the world are increasingly keen to provide enrichment for their animals, worried about the mental health effects of boredom now they're confident the physical side is under control. Some run scent enrichment programs, and one thinks what they are providing their big cats could help control domestic cats' need to roam.
Cats allowed outside the house wreak terrible damage on wildlife, particularly in Australia. The survival of many species depends on controlling these furry assassins. Attempts to impede hunting behavior with bells and even scrunchies work to an extent, but the only way to entirely stop a cat reign of terror is to keep it inside – with the accompanying risk of boredom.
Having learned what keeps the larger members of the cat family stimulated, Zoos Victoria are hoping to share that knowledge with those deciding whether to let their cat stalk the backyard like the African plains.
Ben Gulli of Werribee Open Range Zoo told IFLScience their current focus is on providing their animals with a diversity of scents. This keeps the felines' domain an interesting place for creatures that rely as much on their nose as eyes. For the zoos' lions and cheetah, this means things like leaving gorilla bedding around. “It stimulates their hunting insects,” Gulli said. The zoo also provides more unfamiliar scents, such as perfumes, coffee grounds, and Vegemite – a product strange to most non-Australian humans, let alone animals. Nevertheless, Gulli said its very unfamiliarity makes animals want to investigate it, keeping them alert.
Sadly, Gulli said, gorilla poo is not something the zoo can market to those who cohabit with a cat, though they might make a fortune if they could. Quarantine laws never allowed it, and with the fear of zoonotic disease at an all-time high that’s unlikely to change soon.
However, Gulli recommends other scents cats do find interesting, such as basil or cinnamon. These, he suggests can be distributed around the house in unexpected places, or put into cardboard boxes with some leaves to keep the Felis catus engaged. “One problem is cats will sometimes pee on them,” Gulli acknowledged. The zoo’s cheetah does that with strange scents, as do their servals. “They want their territory to smell like them.”
To address this matter, Gulli proposes cat enrichment should be placed strategically, including judicious use of straw.
On the other hand, big cats also like to roll in strange scents, particularly the gorilla bedding. Gulli thinks this is partly to mask their own scent, allowing them to approach prey undetected. The lionesses also like to wrestle in the coffee grounds.
Scent enrichment is a widespread practice among zoos, Gulli acknowledged, but he adds that “We’re constantly looking for something new.”
Werribee’s hope is ordinary members of the public will take up the idea. “We’re advocating for Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife,” Gulli added, noting cats that spend their lives indoors live longer.
The zoo also uses tools like coursing lures, or swinging food around a pole to keep the lions used to chasing moving prey. Such ideas, however, already have widely used counterparts with petshops filled with toys with feathers on the end or laser pointers to keep kittens excited.