CINCINNATI — They are playful, but this is no game.
Shakira twirls plastic bottles on a rod.
Walter noses through boxes to find hidden treasure.
Mani cuddles his orange hippo plushie.
A meerkat, a warthog and a tamandua (a mini-anteater of sorts) look like they're having a ball with the objects that their human caregivers provide.
But this is serious business for the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden keepers and animals. This is called enrichment.
It is the work of both the human and the animal, all in an effort to make the animal feel challenged. To help it using is stalking skills. It's climbing and burrowing and hunting instincts. And, because this is a zoo, to familiarize the animal with certain behaviors to minimize any anxiety about procedures that have to be done to keep her or him healthy.
Colleen Lawrence has a small nose, no claws or fur and usually stands on two feet. Sometimes, Isla, a tamandua, steps up on two feet, too. But Isla has claws that can grow up to 4 inches long, a full body of fur and a nose that's long enough to poke into holes or tunnels to retrieve tasty insects.
She is not a whole lot like Lawrence.
Yet even with their differences, Isla is at ease with Lawrence, an animal keeper and interpretive ambassador. She allows Lawrence to pull her offspring, Mani, from his beloved plushie, a substitute for Isla when the mother needs some alone time.
Isla gently curls her long claws around Lawrence's fingers, as taught, when sitting in her arms so as not to harm the keeper. They've been together a long time. Isla even let Lawrence hold her on her lap for ultrasounds during the tamandua's pregnancy.
"I hand-felt Isla's first contraction," Lawrence says.
(Do not try this at home. Or anywhere that you find a pregnant animal.)
Isla has developed trust with Lawrence and interpretive teammate Melanie Evans.
Mani allows them to handle him with zero protest.
"Mani," says Lawrence, "is used to our smell."
It appears she and Evans, in turn, are used to his.
The women also handle turaco birds. The sleek, dark-plumed birds with striking red crowns fly on command, scoop up a pinch of raspberry from your hand (and use your palm as a napkin to wipe their beaks). They'll hop as directed — short hops on cue — and come back when called. This allows them to go outside and explore trees and various tree bark and fly right back to Lawrence and Evans when told.
It looks like they're doing tricks for treats, but it's best to keep that sentiment to yourself.
These maneuvers are not just for the crowd's entertainment though the crowd, indeed, is entertained. The turacos are stretching their necks and heads a particular way to build muscles that they'd need to thrive in the wild. They are developing skills of flying on command for safety. And more.
Dan Turoczi, senior Africa keeper, has a much heavier load.
That's because Turoczi cares for Walter, a warthog who weighs 210 pounds. And Rose, the ostrich who unquestionably adores Turoczi (seriously, other zoo workers tease him about it) and weighs "about 303 pounds," among other large animals.
Rose appears from her stable just as Turoczi claps his hands, and she just can't seem to stay close enough to her keeper as he mills around an outdoor pen.
Her pal Pam (another elegant ostrich) is less enthused. But she'll take the bait, too. They're both given treats if they listen, but Pam gets a delicacy, treats that normally go to ducks, because she won't work for less. Rose is fine with any old snack, as long as it comes from Dan.
Walter's quarters are a little messy. There's a reason for that, Turoczi says. "He'll rearrange his stable."
It is important for Walter to keep busy. And just as crucial for him to accept Turoczi. The warthog is stout and powerful and has a face-full of tusks, after all.
Also, says Turoczi: "He's curious. He's very smart."
To live well, it is essential that Walter not get bored.
So he'll run around the stable and push around a dodecagon (a 12-sided plastic block thing, which makes you wonder whether Walter knows the name). He'll linger under the low-hanging wind chimes in his stable, because he likes how they feel on his back.
And when it is time to get serious, Walter complies. He will turn on cue. He will sit on cue. He will primly (if that's possible for a warthog) stand on a box — which has a tantalizing mirror attached to it — for injections or blood draws or other medical procedures, should he need them.
Away from these large animal stables is a home for the meerkats, which senior Africa keeper Jenna Wingate oversees.
Santana, Shakira, Louis (Loo-EES, not Loo-iss, please pronounce that correctly), Mark, Bert and Zevon (named after musicians. You picked up on that, right?) have what looks like a toddler's dream playground outside.
They bat at puzzle feeders, poke bugs out of holes drilled into a stump and dive into a pile of straw in a big plastic box to forage for meal worms and catch crickets that are trying to jump out (and often succeeding). Sometimes they drop into underground tunnels to dig some more.
Wingate knows the meerkats well and can reach out and delicately touch their backs. It's important not because it's an "aww!" moment for her, but because their monthly flea and tick treatment must be dabbed on a shoulder. The meerkats are so comfortable with Wingate that they'll sometimes use her shoulder as a lookout. And they'll come when she calls them by name.
Bert is the friendliest, Wingate says. Louis is shy.
"Shakira, she is very confident," Wingate notes. "She doesn't get messed with because she's the boss." The boss because she is the only female, and female meerkats are dominant.
Speaking of bosses, the Cincinnati Zoo animals have bonds with their humans, so much so that they seem like family or friends.
Make no mistake, say the keepers. This relationship isn't that personal.
"I would never want these animals in my house," Evans says, nodding toward Isla and Mani. "I could never come close to meeting their needs."
"They are not our animals. They are not our pets."
"The animals," she says, "are our co-workers."