Pets corner

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Pets Corner - Top tips for your pets from Whipsnade’s Angela Robinson

Ever peered into the adoring eyes of your pooch or pussy cat, and wondered what they are thinking? “What are they doing?”, you groan to yourself, as faithful Fido rolls in the foulest smelling substance possible, or furry Felix takes offence at your innocent toes under the duvet. Look no further, predator expert and Zookeeper Angela Robinson shares her top tips for understanding and caring for your little predators.

Angela Robinson
Zookeeper Angela Robinson works with our largest predators

Walk on the wild side

Understanding the way a predator hunts can be the key to unlocking their wild side and keeping them stimulated. Just like domestic cats, Amur tigers are known to be excellent climbers, so this is a behaviour we encourage by tying food high in trees. This gets their muscles working, as well as their sharp, retractable claws.

Creating movement is another way to get animals excited and bring out the ‘chase’ instinct. We tie food onto a zipline in the tiger paddock, which means that as they grab onto their lunch it moves and swings, igniting the ferocious hunter inside of them as they fight to pull down their prize.

Your family cat might spend most of their time on their favourite cushion, but they’re programmed to chase rodents and small birds in just the same way. Try leaving a long piece of string on the ground, chances are your cat will ignore it and walk straight past. Now try pulling or wiggling the string to simulate the quick movements of a small animal and see how quickly your moggy will pounce. Games like this really show that even domestic pets still have a wild side and their natural instincts are just below the surface!

Tiger enrichment
Makari the Amur tiger gets climbing for his dinner!

Turn on your pet’s smelly-vision

Canines have an incredible sense of smell – did you know that a bloodhound’s sense of smell is 300 times better than yours or mine? We have a huge collection of herbs, spices and perfumes that we use to keep our predators’ noses working, and the African hunting dogs can’t get enough of it! We even use old bedding and fur from other animals around the Zoo – camel fur is their favourite. They love it so much that they roll in it and wipe it all over themselves.

Scientists think that some predators do this to hide their own scent when hunting, so they can sneak up on prey. It’s hard to blame your muck-covered pup – it’s a natural instinct! Get your pooch’s snoot working by introducing him or her to new smells on walks or around the home. Try out any old perfumes you have lying around, grow herbs and spices in a garden patch or window box, or see what they make of your old socks (my dog’s personal favourite). 

African hunting dogs
Our African hunting dogs love the scent of herbs, especially aniseed and camel fur

Get creative with dinner time

Cats (of all sizes) might have a reputation for being lazy because of how much time they spend sleeping, but they actually do this to conserve energy for hunting at dawn and dusk. Our lioness Kia, however, has taken the lazy lion image to a whole new level. She’s very crafty and always manages to steal food from her brothers without lifting a finger (or a claw).

We spend a lot of time thinking up new and exciting ways to keep Kia working for her food and using all the muscles she’s evolved to bring down prey. Moving her food up high is one way to get her climbing, and you could try turning mealtimes into an exercise session too. Hide your cat’s dinner in a new place or put it out of reach and watch their predatory instincts come creeping out.

African lion
Lions might have a reputation for being lazy, but they do it to save energy for hunting

Teamwork makes the dream work

We train our animals to make sure we can look after them in the best way possible. Like our tigers, who we teach to open their mouths widely on command so we can check their teeth are nice and healthy.

Our resident sloth bear, Colombo, loves his weekly training sessions and gets excited every time he sees the keepers arrive with his favourite reward – honey! Much like my cockapoo Tilly at home, Colombo is eager to please and enjoys working out what we’re asking him to do. Animals learn life skills from each other that help them to thrive, and learning in the Zoo or at home from keepers can be a great way to bond.

Our training is often focused on veterinary care and their day-to-day management, and you can do the same. Get your dog used to opening their mouth and exposing their gums for dental check-ups, or presenting their paws for inspection. (This one can be really handy for cleaning muddy paws after a long walk.) Just like Columbo and his honey, find your pet’s favourite treat and keep it on hand – they’ll be eager to learn and start to associate the training with rewards.

Colombo the Sloth Bear
Colombo the sloth bear loves his regular training sessions, especially when we reward him with his favourite treat – honey!

A man’s best friend

For all their similarities, there are actually a lot of differences between your four-legged friends and the predators at Whipsnade Zoo. This is because, although related, our domestic pets have evolved to a life living with humans, whereas the animals at the Zoo are not domesticated.

One example of this is your dog’s facial expressions. Domestic dogs may have evolved from the grey wolf, but they have developed facial muscles that grey wolves don’t have. It is thought that this is to make themselves more appealing to humans – which makes sense as we are now their source of food! So next time you’re eating dinner and your dog looks at you with those big ‘feed me’ eyes, remember that this isn’t just begging, it is in fact an evolutionary survival strategy!  

Gold members receive articles like this one three times a year in our Wild About magazine. To get your paws onto the next edition, and to visit the animals as often as you like, become a Gold member today.

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