Art and science collide in TCU Zoo’s enrichment course

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Students over the years work on their projects for the zoo’s enrichment course. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tory Bennett)

The intersection of art and ecology is exhibited in a zoo enrichment class offered on campus.

Co-taught by Associate Professor of Environmental Science Dr. Victoria “Tory” Bennett and Studio Art Professor Cameron “Cam” Schoepp, MFA, the Zoo Enrichment Course explores the ecological behavior of animals wild animals to better understand the types of stimuli they naturally encounter. Students then develop and build structures intended to engage and enrich the lives of animals at Fort Worth Zoo.

Students work in teams to study a specific species at the zoo and create objects that will enhance their life in captivity.

“It wouldn’t work if we didn’t combine art students with ecology students. You can make all kinds of things and put them in the zoo, but if you don’t have knowledge of ecology, you can’t design something that will be so effective. Bennett said. “The same goes for ecology students, they don’t know how to weld to save their lives. They couldn’t come up with those ideas. This combination and this collaboration make it work. It’s an example of how you need all aspects of art and science to solve global problems, or in this case, zoo enrichment.

Bennett and Shoepp created the course more than nine years ago, and it is offered every other year. The duo recruits students – graduates and undergraduates – to take the course.

“We’re tapping into a group of students who have met certain prerequisites and who would work well with this particular group,” Schoepp said. “We encourage them to take the course because we can’t necessarily get them to enroll.”

The two teachers assess their students’ personalities, strengths and weaknesses to determine the perfect group.

“We have teams of three: an advanced ecologist, an advanced artist, and a little wiggle room for either or or a beginner,” Bennett said.

Group 1 3D printed mussel feeder. (Sara Littlejohn/editor)

Environmental Science major Gloria Serrano and MFA graduate students Benjamin Loftis and Madi Ortega focus their efforts on hyacinth macaw, a beautiful cobalt blue bird with yellow coloring around its eyes and the base of its beak. It is the largest parrot of the macaw family.

“We saw that she didn’t have the ability to apply full force with her beak,” Serrano said. “Everything given to her, she destroyed.”

The group decided to create something that would make the macaw work for its food, instead of just putting it in its cage.

“Our idea is not only to create something solid for her, but also something that challenges her food acquisition,” Serrano said. “It forces him to manipulate something into receiving a prize and really allowing him to attack it.”

Their creation resembles a chandelier. The food is placed inside the top where it spreads to different places in the structure where the bird must retrieve it. The frame is made of 3D plastic, then printed and waxed into shape. The band plans to dip it in wax and finally cast it in aluminum.

“It’s designed so that everything inside allows it to use the full force of its beak,” Serrano said.

Nathan Little builds the Group 2 jig. The jig will allow them to regularly cut PVC pipe. (Sara Littlejohn/writer)

Lauren Griffin, a senior combined science major, Nathan Little, a senior sculpture major, and Sydney Martin, a junior studio fine art painting major, focus on the gray fox. They are sometimes known as “tree fox” or “cat fox” because it is one of two species of canids that climb trees. Their rotating wrists and semi-retractable claws allow them to climb high into their den, feed or escape predators.

Marshall, the Fort Worth Zoo’s gray fox, has an indoor and outdoor enclosure.

“Outside he had nothing where he could use his natural tree-climbing abilities,” Griffin said. “Grey foxes forage in trees in the wild. They like to escape predators and play with trees. Trees are just a big part of their natural instinct in nature.

The band wanted to maximize the enclosure vertically. Marshall’s enclosure isn’t large, but the band felt they could double the space by making it vertical.

The group decided to make a tree out of PVC pipes and rubber. The textured rubber looks like tree bark. Marshall will be able to plant his claws there and climb to the top.

“Zoo keepers can also put food up there, so there’s a reason for him to climb the tree,” Griffin said. “He’ll mimic those natural foraging habits by climbing those trees to get food.”

Group 3 3D model of her loader for the Patagonian Mara (Sara Littlejohn/Staff Writer).

Lane Rosal, second-year sculpture student, Davion Mack, junior sculpture student, and Taylor Craig, senior environmental science student, work with the Patagonian Mara, a large rodent with long, hare-like ears and a body that resembles a small deer. It has long, powerful hind legs that allow it to quickly escape predators. Its four sharp claws on its front legs allow it to dig.

“In its natural habitat, it wandered from place to place and grazed with its group of species,” Rosal said. “There’s nothing like it in the zoo because it’s in a small off-site enclosure with a concrete floor.”

He was being fed from a dog bowl, so his access to food was very immediate – very different from foraging in the wild.

“We’re trying to create a feeder for him that looks a lot like a dog snuff mat,” Rosal said. “It would encourage him to forage for food as he would in the wild. It would also encourage him to move from place to place like they do in the wild.

The group used a fire hose as the main element of the structure. They also use pet-safe two-part epoxy to encapsulate the structure.

“Since he was a rodent, his teeth are constantly growing,” Rosal said. “He’s always going to chew on things, so we wanted to pick a material that would be durable for him, but he can also get a lot of use out of it and exercise the natural tendencies he has.”

Rosal’s group is seeking donations via gofundme to help defray project expenses. 100% of the profits go to the construction of the mara feeder.

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