TCU Teams up With Zoo for Wild New Class

Just after Boudreaux the American black bear at the Fort Worth Zoo incorrectly selected the Carolina Panthers to win the Super Bowl by rummaging through a branded football for treats, it wandered over to another foreign object in its habitat. While the pyramid of fire hose may look out of place to outsiders, to the bear, it mimics something incredibly natural: the common task of foraging for food.

The innovative creation is just one of five similar projects, thanks to an interdisciplinary course titled Zoo Enrichment that launched last semester at TCU. The experimental class was created and is co-taught by faculty members Cameron Schoepp, associate professor of art, and Dr. Tory Bennett, assistant professor in the School of Geology, Energy & the Environment. The two collaborated with Dr. Jenny Elston, curator of conservation and behavior at the Fort Worth Zoo, who helped the students develop their projects.

The course is inspired by the Fort Worth Zoo’s Animal Enrichment Program. The program creates opportunities for resident animals to express natural, species-appropriate behaviors, like foraging, exploring, playing or even resting comfortably. In short, it’s designed to incorporate the behavioral needs of the animals, providing them opportunities to experience similarities to life in the wild. For example, rather than simply feeding the red kangaroos at the zoo, students created a “foraging simulator” in the form of a large woven basket comparable to bushes where kangaroos would naturally search for food.

Zoo Enrichment included 15 students who were undergrad and graduate students from the art and science departments. The science students were biology and environment majors, and the art students consisted of painters, sculpture and art education majors. The students were divided up into five teams of three.

“The art sculpture students were more familiar with the construction of how things work and the science students brought a different skill set to the process which brought the groups together,” said Schoepp.

After researching different species in the Fort Worth Zoo that would benefit from created objects, each team came up with a concept it wanted to pursue, and presented its idea to the zoo administration and animal caregivers from the zoo for approval. The class then designed toys to trigger and encourage the natural behaviors of the animals in the wild.

Each group built a toy for a specific animal including North American River Otters, Red Kangaroos, American Black Bears, African Black Rhinos and Sumatran Orangutans.

The otter team designed a structure that mimics a beaver lodge, the black rhinos were given a browse-feeder that simulates natural browsing behavior and the team tasked with Sumatran Orangutans created a tree-hole replica where the animals rummage for water.

The groups put their art and science minds together, using materials like Styrofoam, Plexiglass and epoxy. Students revealed their projects on Dec. 14, and the objects they designed can still be seen in the animal enclosures at the Fort Worth Zoo.

“They far exceeded our expectations,” said Schoepp. “They were widely ambitious and I think they met their goals.”