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With Modern Design, Ohio Zoos Change How We Interact With Animals

The giraffe's tongue can be up to 20 inches long. The dark color is believed to help prevent sunburn.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
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The giraffe's tongue can be up to 20 inches long. The dark color is believed to help prevent sunburn.

Laura Bernstein-Kurtycz is holding a piece of crisp romaine, waiting for a passing giraffe. 

“Here comes Jasmine, I think she spotted my lettuce,” she says.

We're on the giraffe feeding deck at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo where some of Bernstein-Kurtycz's research has centered in recent years. She's a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University studying the behavior of animals in captivity.

Suddenly Jasmine's head appears at the railing.  A giant purple tongue darts out of the giraffe's head, it snatches the lettuce, and she starts munching. 

With soulful eyes just inches away, the giraffe feeding deck is a perfect way to come face to face with these majestic animals. But Bernstein-Kurtycz discovered that when the feeding deck opened a few years ago, it altered the animals’ behavior.

“We found that the giraffes spent a lot of their time pacing near the runway to get into the barn at the end of the day,” she says.

The animals had learned that there was no point in doing anything other than anxiously waiting for more food inside.

“They were done. They were ready to go in," says Bernstein-Kurtycz. "They knew it was the end of the day.”

The solution she came up with last fall was to stagger the schedule to keep the giraffes guessing.

“Now lettuce feeding goes practically up to when the zoo closes, and in fact we saw a dramatic reduction in that pacing to go in,” she says.

Laura Bernstein-Kurtycz is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University and does research at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
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WKSU
Laura Bernstein-Kurtycz is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University and does research at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. She's interested in animal behavior in captivity.

Ohio’s local zoos are changing. The Akron Zoo is in the midst of a $17 million expansion, making new homes for lions and tigers, while the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo recently opened exhibits featuring Asian wildlife and rare Siberian tigers.

There’s a lot of research that goes into making captive animals a little more comfortable.

A Menu For Tigers

We see different research goals at Rosebrough Tiger Passage, which, since it opened in 2016, has been home to Cleveland’s two Siberian tigers. That’s where we meet Charles Ritzler, also a grad student at Case. 

“The question I’m focused on is introducing choice into zoo animals’ lives,” Ritzler says.

He’s monitoring how the tigers use separate spaces.

“The four exhibits we have are the river, the creek, meadow, and ridge,” he says, “and river and ridge can be connected by this amazing overhead tunnel.”

Charles Ritlzer is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
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WKSU
Charles Ritlzer is a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University. He's studying how providing choices benefits animals in captivity.

It’s basically a bridge 15 feet off the ground, built with locally sourced black locust lumber.

One tiger, Klechka, is exercising his options. 

“He was just sitting in the creek exhibit," says Ritzler, "and now he moved into the meadow exhibit, so he’s actively taking advantage of the choice we’re giving him, which is really exciting to see.”

But the bridge is closed today. Ritzler says access to each enclosure is scheduled to keep the two males separate.

Meanwhile, Klechka has caught scent of something. His nose wrinkles and his long tongue dangles out of his mouth.

“Part of that is from panting to cool him down," Ritzler says. "Also they do this really cool behavior called the flehmen response, where they flick their tongue out and it brings in particles in the air to their vomeronasal organ, and that’s another way they can investigate the environment around them.”

Ritzler is thrilled to see rare tigers behaving naturally, while in captivity, just feet away from us.

More Than Animals On Exhibit

The new tiger exhibit replaced a design from the 1960s, where deep moats separated people from animals.

“We’re getting away from that old style of kind-of looking down at the animals,” says Holly Grambort, lead architect for the project with the Cleveland firm Van Auken Akins.

The Pride of Africa exhibit at the Akron Zoo features a concrete and steel termite mound framing The Pride of Africa exhibit at the Akron Zoo features a concrete and steel termite mound framing "pride rock," a feature that will be heated in colder weather to encourage lions to sit there.
Credit Akron Zoo

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“Conservation-wise, education-wise, and care-wise," says Grambort, "people have evolved their thinking for what the zoo should be and what the zoo should do.”

Conservation and education are big themes at the Akron Zoo, where director of capital projects Chris Norman gives me a tour of the soon-to-be-finished Pride of Africa exhibit.

He says the 3-acre site  is based on a traditional Maasai encampment, designed with consultation from an Africa-based conservation group called Rebuilding the Pride. The lion enclosure will have room for two separate lion groups, starting with the current pair Tamarr and Mandisa.

Perspective will be an important part of the experience.

“We’re looking up at the cats, they’re looking down on us,” Norman says. "The lions will have a great view of Akron.”

Norman says the exhibit tells a story of coexistence with the natural world.

“The theme for Pride of Africa really is about ways we as a society can modify our behaviors to benefit the natural environment,” he says.

Captive animals, he says, remind us of our obligation to protect wild places.  

“Zoos and aquariums, at their best, are an inspiration in our daily lives to make the connection that what we do matters,” Norman says.

Exhibit design, in addition to giving animals choices, can also stress the choice we have of whether to make sure animals still have a home here on Earth.