Captive environments often struggle to match the wild habitat. To get a better understanding of enclosure design and to meet like-minded individuals our director joined the EAZA Enclosure design workshop in Amsterdam.
Run by Monica Fiby, it was an excellent two days of discovering other perspectives when it comes to zoo exhibit design. While For Tigers will always put the focus on the animal when it comes to enclosure design, it was very beneficial to consider visitor perspective and how to create immersive exhibits that would have a lasting impact on them-hopefully for the better.
Special cats need special care
Following the EAZA workshop, two of our trustees also visited FELIDA, part of Four Paws to get an insight into caring for recently rescued big cats. What was really informative about this visit was the innovative use of space to provide for these cats in the best way possible.
Many of the cats here have come from terrible backgrounds and suffer from a multitude of health issues, As such, they're not able to simply use large enclosures with high platforms such as those used by younger or healthier animals. Instead, each enclosure is designed with specialised care in mind. For instance, platforms have ramps for the less-mobile cats rather than jumps to reach the top. There are also small barriers to prevent geriatric animals from falling off the top. And, hammocks made of fire hose are there for incontinence issues, drawing the urine away before it has time to soak against the fur/ skin.
A major part of the work FELIDA does is rescue missions. These rescues ensure that big cats living in substandard living conditions such as private care or zoos in war zones are rescued and relocated to better environments. In fact, many of these rescued animals end up at Lion Rock in South Africa living out their days in large enclosures closely resembling the wild.
A lot of focus is put on training to ensure the cats in their care have a stress-free environment to live in. By utilizing training as a form of positive interaction, the staff of FELIDA are able to ensure interactions are as stress-free as possible including those surrounding medical procedures.
Similar to FELIDA, Stichting Leeuw is also a rescue centre for ex-circus and zoo big cats. They too, have a strong focus on the animal over the visitor with numerous practices implemented to ensure a stress-free environment for all their cats.
One of the best features is a visual barrier surrounding the enclosures. This natural, wood and ivy structure prevents the cats from being stressed by large numbers of people. Instead, small windows are provided in the barrier allowing visitors the chance to peer through to see where the cats are. By prioritising the animals, they're able to feel safer, more secure and less under scrutiny from what could be perceived as threatening
On top of that, Stichting Leeuw has a strong focus on enrichment. The facility has a one-of-a-kind hunting simulator. Sadly, it was undergoing upgrades during our visit so we couldn't see it in action. Again, the focus is all on removing stress, something that appears to be very successful as there was no stereotypical pacing or other obvious signs of stress seen during our visit.
A final feature at Stichting Leeuw that's worth a mention was the strong focus on education. A comprehensive child-focused exhibit rings the hunting simulator room with excellent interactive information. A particularly pertinent, and harrowing, interactive part included a box for the visitor to stand in only to be surrounded by faces, cameras and noise to show how it feels for big cats in tourist' interactions. A very successful way of bringing the point home.
At the end of the day, both rescue facilities offer welfare-orientated living for their big cats. With the emphasis on the cats and not the visitors, it was a delight to find well-adjusted cats without overwhelming abnormal repetitive behaviours from previous poor housing conditions.
On top of that, all of these cats have the potential to be relocated to large enclosures in South African facilities living out the rest of their days free from visitor interactions in as wild an environment as possible.