Thanksgiving Day Special For Animals At Brevard Zoo

By  //  November 22, 2012

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(Editor’s note: The Brevard Zoo is closed today in observance of Thanksgiving, but here’s how some of the animals there will spend the holiday.)

BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – Pity poor LeBron. The guy’s a real pussycat.

Lebron the jaguar won’t be dining on turkey this Thanskgiving, but his meal may be holiday-themed and challenging. (Image courtesy of Brevard Zoo)

He’s scared to death of butterflies, if you can believe that.

And those little lizards that crawl harmlessly over everything?

They just freak him out.

It doesn’t help that LeBron has the power, claws and teeth to take down any animal in the Western Hemisphere if he feels so inclined.

LeBron, you see, is a jaguar who lives at the Brevard Zoo.

So the big cat’s phobias and other personality quirks are well-known by his keepers.

And his keepers learn his traits quickest when they engage him in what they refer to as “enrichment,” which takes in any activity they create that falls outside the day-to-day routine.

For instance, they’ll put into the an animal’s environment some strange looking manikin or piñata designed more for claws than clubs, just to get the animals’ interest and reaction.  Added food treats are pretty sure to draw their attention, of course.

As different holidays approach, the enrichment treats are theme-coordinated.

During Halloween for instance, (not terribly) scary objects were introduced.

Ozzie the otter shows his enthusiasm for Thanksgiving treats at the Brevard Zoo. (Image by Robert Hughes)

On the menu

Now, as Thanksgiving has arrived, it does not mean the animals will get goodies like turkey, stuffing and cranberries because all their diets are strictly defined according to what they would eat in the wild.

Instead, you might see paper plates with colorful autumn leaves created by area school kids hanging from branches on which bounce  the golden-headed lion tamarin – a very lively type of monkey.

Or it’ll be pumpkins filled with, well, kind of gross meaty stuff  the alligators will vigorously attack in their waters. (Actually, one gator named Humphrey “will just sit and guard one as if to say ‘This is my pumpkin and you guys can just split,’ ” according to enrichment coordinator Nikki Maginness.)

Keepers say engaging  animals with these kinds of activities is important, and their “enrichment” activities are always announced over the public speakers at the zoo to draw visitors.

Not a lot of visitors seem to respond to the announcements, so many are missing a great chance to get a glimpse into the animals’ individual personalities.

And they could certainly start with LeBron.

This pair of golden conures at the Brevard Zoo are a talkative couple. Beverly, right, is proud to continually yell phrases she has learned from keepers like, “Go Bev girl!” while Mr. Beverly, beside her, does his best to mimic her. The autumn-leaved paper plate behind them was made by a local child as part of the animals’ enrichment. (Image by Robert Hughes)

Enrichment reactions

Behavioral interpretive coordinator Johnnie Baker had to laugh when describing his recent enrichment encounter with the young jaguar.

“First of all, our jaguars are great swimmers,” he said. “And they’ll eat fish, so we got them some tilapia and put them in the water. But LeBron just sat there and kinda stalked the fish. He wouldn’t get in the water.

“But then he saw this lizard out of the corner of his eye, and he freaked out and fell in the water. And every time a fish touched him, he’d freak out.”

Yeah, jaguars may be the Americas’ version of the king of the jungle, but it’s somehow comforting to know they have some very human characteristics. And getting such personal  reactions from the animals is what their “enrichment” is all about.

Baker said enrichment activity “keeps their minds active. It keeps them healthy and also interested and motivated to look for food. Exercise is another great part of it, instead of them just sitting and eating a fish handed to them.”

Florida keeper Arica O’Sullivan brings what she calls “fish sticks” to the otter exhibit at the Brevard Zoo. Such props are used to entertain and educate the animals, as well as zoo visitors, in a process called “enrichment.” (Image by Robert Hughes)


At another exhibit, Baker and fellow keeper Arica O’Sullivan needed no scary lizard to entice otters Ozzie and Saba into the water for fish and… dog biscuits.

“They keep their teeth sharp and clean,” O’Sullivan explained about the biscuits.

But as enthusiastic as all otters may seem about fish and, well, just about everything, these Florida natives also have big personality differences.

“Saba… Her metabolism is so incredibly fast,” Baker said. “She gets a special amount of fish, chicken and red meat. But she doesn’t like ground meat; she has to get it in chunks.

“Now with Ozzie (the male otter), if we fed him that much, he’d be rolling all over the place” with an over-extended belly.

O’Sullivan yelled down to Baker from her perch up the stairs of the otter exhibit, “You ready to target?”

To which Baker responded, “Yes,” before holding a small plastic circle up to the exhibit’s glass wall.

Ozzie bounced over and stuck his nose up against the glass where Baker held the circle for a short while before Baker praised him and O’Sullivan dropped him a fishy reward.

Baker said, “Targeting (calling the animal to a specific spot) is training behavior. Not only does it keep (the animals’) minds active, it’s beneficial to us in case we need to get a better look at them in case they have a (health) problem like with their back or something.”

Zoo keepers say that encounters with humans, as these at the giraffe feeding platform, are also a form of “enrichment” for the animals to keep them mentally alert, even as the animals enrich visitors’ lives. (Image by Robert Hughes)

Drawing attention

Getting and keeping the animals’ attention “is a matter of changing things around a lot,” Maginness said. “Like with the otters, being omnivorous, they’ll eat all kinds of things. So we’ll put a cricket in there and they’ll have so much fun chasing it around.”

The otters were certainly not the only ones having fun on this day. Over at the tamarin exhibit, the keepers themselves seemed mesmerized by the tiny and brightly colored monkeys’ antics.

Part of the enrichment for the tamarin, along with the birds and tortoise who live together in the exhibit, was a bowl-shaped ice mold holding berries and melon pieces hanging from a limb.

It was a cold day, so it wasn’t exactly melting fast.

“The monkeys will actually work on it a little bit (while it’s still frozen), and the birds will get it when the ice breaks up and the berries fall to the ground,” Maginness said. “And it’s also good for the tortoise because it’ll get pieces of it.”

As the tamarins bounced from limb to limb, inspecting the autumn-leaved plates and generally acting like a barrel of monkeys, two spectacular birds called Golden Conures added to the commotion with a non-stop high-pitched chatter like cartoon characters.

Wild turkeys are part of the Brevard Zoo’s “Wild Florida” exhibit. (Image courtesy Brevard Zoo)


“Let’s go! Let’s go! C’mon, let’s go!” the one named Beverly would squeal. The pecking order here was clear from the get-go, as her mate – notably named Mr. Beverly – could only manage weaker unintelligible mumbles in mimic of the female.

But the two of them hung together on the side of the cage, contorting themselves like serious competitors in that Twister floor game, and carried on noisily in front of their enamored keepers.

“Yeah, this is enrichment for us, too,” Maginness said. “It’s so much fun.”

To which her fellow human observer, Baker, replied, “Yeah, I could watch this all day.”

The Brevard Zoo is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, rain or shine, except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Make sure to keep an ear out for announcements advertising  “enrichment programs” while in the zoo.

And maybe keep an eye out for those scary butterflies, too. LeBron, king of the jungle, would appreciate it.

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