By Chris Mongillo, University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory
Determined to celebrate Valentine’s Day with the animals of the Woodland Park Zoo, a crowd of hearty Washingtonians scoffed at the wind and rain last Saturday to watch animals share Valentine’s Day-themed treats like heart-shaped boxes filled with fruit, heart-shaped fruit wreaths and heart-shaped ice pops.
The annual event is what’s called “thematic enrichment,” according to zoo spokesperson Gigi Allianic. “Enrichment is the process of creating a challenging environment to address an animal’s social, psychological and physical needs,” Allianic said. She added that such events contribute to successful breeding of endangered species in captivity and connecting zoo visitors to the animals. “It’s an opportunity for visitors to learn about behavioral enrichment,” Allianic said.
Allianic said themed events are not only a great way for visitors to learn about the zoo’s animals, but is also an important part of caring for the animals. “It reinforces natural behavior such as exploring and foraging and is a part of the daily care program,” Allianic said.
While Valentine’s Day at the zoo is a hit with heart-shaped treats being fed to the animals, Allianic said it’s not the only event that draws a crowd. The zoo offers other events on Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Allianic said she proposed the idea in 2004 of having a series of zoo events that corresponded to yearly holidays. The idea became reality with the help of the zoo’s animal management team.
On Saturday, zoo visitor Carroll Ladasgaskin was standing in a nearby tree to watch several lemurs fight over a heart-shaped box smothered in smashed bananas. She said she found out about the event by accident last year during a Valentine’s Day visit.
“We were so excited; we went around to every place we could go,” Ladasgaskin said.
Ladasgaskin said this year she was going to hurry to visit all of the animals she could before the zoo closed for the day.
“As soon as these [lemurs] are finished we’re gonna run, even in the rain,” she said.
Ladasgaskin added that she is very excited not only for her own enjoyment of the animals, but for the positive affects these events have on the animals themselves.
“I think it’s great because animals that are enclosed, as beautiful an environment as this is — they need enrichment; they need to have little spices in their life just like us,” Ladasgaskin said. “I think it’s quite perfect.”
Zoo visitor said Beau Hayden said he and his family didn’t know about the event prior to their visit, but really enjoyed it and are looking forward to coming back next year. Hayden said his favorite animals of the day were the snow leopards. “They gave them a box and they were playing with it; it was really cool,” Hayden said.
Of course adults weren’t the only ones who had a good time; a young brother-sister duo by the names of Liam and Frances said they had a lot of fun, too.
When asked what his favorite animal was and what treat it got, Liam said he liked the gorillas and that they got a paper bag as their treat.
Frances said she liked most of the monkeys but wasn’t able to see what their treat was.
The next enrichment event at the Woodland Park Zoo will be Easter-themed, on April 3. For more information about upcoming events, visit the Woodland Park Zoo events calendar.
(Contributor Chris Mongillo is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)