behavior · creativity · environment · play

Boat Bumbers as elephant toys

An elephant named Chai carries a boat bumper around with her trunk. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

This time of year we often think of playing in boats and recreation on the water. But sometimes one kind of play can inspire an entirely different kind. I came across this great blog post from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA, about how recycled objects like boat bumpers make great toys, especially for larger critters:

Our elephants have a number of toys, or, in zoo-speak, Environmental Enrichment Devices (EED) that are designed to bring out their instinctual behaviors, along with all the naturally enriching elements in their exhibit like trees, logs, leaf piles, water and different ground coverings. The elephants have quite an array of EEDs, and one of their favorites is a boomer ball, which we often fill with treats. But constantly purchasing more boomer balls (since the elephants can be a bit destructive with them) can be a little costly. So, what’s a zookeeper to do? We think outside the box, er, ball.

With a background working with marine mammals, I thought back to my days of playing with dolphins. We would throw boat bumpers and buoys in with the 800-pound critters, and play endless games with them. So, how would an 8,000-pound animal react to one?

To get my answer I ventured to West Marine to see if we could acquire a couple of boat bumpers to test out on these playful pachyderms. Lo and behold, I discovered that not only did the manager have a couple to spare, but that in the summertime, they often receive dozens each week. Finding a new and revitalized way to keep them out of the landfill was refreshing to him, and getting free toys for the animals at the zoo was exhilarating for me!

We hung a boat bumper up in the barn, and put another in an EED container to protect it from getting squished too soon. It didn’t take Bamboo long to figure out where the hole was located so she could get the treats out. It took a little encouragement from us for Bamboo to notice the hanging bumper, but once she realized it, too, held treats, it was game on, and she batted it non-stop until she was certain every morsel was out.

To see how the other elephants reacted, read the rest of the blog post.

Congrats to Woodland Park Zoo and West Marine for keeping stuff out of the landfill and making some elephants very happy!

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