Native to the savannas of Africa, servals are a beautiful cat species and the new arrival at ZSL London Zoo has a rather unique story that has enabled keepers to engage in more detailed levels of training with this species than ever before.
Xena is a female serval, thought to be between six and seven years old, who was originally kept as a domestic pet, before being seized by customs at Heathrow Airport when her owner tried to illegally smuggle her into the UK. Originally looked after at Chester Zoo, Xena moved to London in September 2015, where she will show off her wonderful natural hunting skills in the Zoo’s exciting demonstrations during the spring and summer months.
Sadly Xena was declawed by her original owner, but this hasn’t stopped her, and her gentle temperament has meant keepers have been able to carry out increased levels of training and conditioning with her, compared to previous servals. The new training programme means Xena gets to use all of her skills and put her muscles to good use and will be able to demonstrate the natural behaviours of this magnificent animal to visitors.
“The key purpose of enrichment and training is to stimulate the animal by giving them choice and decisions to make in their environment – and encourage use of their natural abilities and behaviour. When we train an animal we need to think about the opportunities we give them to get food out of us for example”, says deputy team leader Robert Harland.
From her enclosure, to her activities in the shows, the team at ZSL London Zoo has worked tirelessly to provide Xena with bags of enrichment activities and as natural an environment as possible. Known for camouflaging in long grasses and leaping up to 12ft into the air to catch prey, keepers have put lots of different tall grasses into her enclosure, as well as regularly hanging up food parcels for her to jump for. She also has lots of climbing opportunities, with several different height levels on offer.
Robert continued: “She loves looking out over large areas; predators often do, and cats especially. Xena can see into Regent’s Park because we have got some high platforms in her enclosure..
“In the wild they’re really, really well camouflaged. They’ve got these stripes and spots down their body and that camouflages her excellently against the long, thin grasses and the little bits of shade that you get in there, so she’s got lots of opportunities to conceal herself.
“Training also helps us to provide better care for the animals – for example, she’s conditioned to accept injections, both in her thigh and in the back of her neck. This means we can give her annual inoculations or any medicine she may need, in a relaxed environment for her, and helps to ensure we maintain a good working relationship.”
“We can harness her if we need to take her out for a walk; she’s trained to go into a crate as well, so that we can take her for any medical procedures, or if we need to move her to a different enclosure. We can also weigh her, and she’ll even stay put on a green mat. We could put that mat absolutely anywhere we wanted and she’d know to stand there in front of us. She’ll also follow us, so if I hold my hand down by my side, she’ll walk along until I give her a signal to go and give her some food.”
Continued training and enrichment from the team has meant the team at ZSL London Zoo have been able to introduce her to demonstrations for visitors showing off her natural adaptations, such as large ears, powerful jaw and long, agile legs.
“We want to show how good she is at hunting small things on the ground, so I’ve got a small lure that will pull her ‘prey’ through the grass and then she can show you exactly what it looks like when she pounces. We also wanted to show how fast servals are, because in the wild they can get up to speeds of about 50mph. We’ve got a larger lure that we run across the middle of the lawn with a small piece of food attached to it”, says Robert.
“She’s been fantastic to work with from day one and we’ve ended up moving things on quite quickly with her because she’s really enjoying her training sessions and shown such a great propensity to learn.”, he adds.
You can see Xena in our Super Species Live! Demonstration on the display lawn at ZSL London Zoo from Easter, at weekends and throughout the summer holidays.
Please be aware that our serval’s enclosure is off-show to the public and Xena can be seen during the Zoo's Superspecies demonstrations.
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