Cincinnati Zoo volunteers enriches zoo animals’ lives

Jerry Roetting and Eli Shupe work on equipment to be used for Cincinnati Zoo primates.

It’s the haunting season and funny-faced pumpkins and spooky hideouts, often with night creatures tucked inside, are now habitat-enhancing at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

It looks festive and crowd-pleasing, sure, but the animals are really the ones who benefit from all the seasonal decor, creative toys and hidden treasure added to habitats throughout the year. And all that stuff is the work of an enrichment-making team that has the job of making camouflaged gadgets for animals to nudge their instincts and keep them stimulated.

It’s a job that has no down time. There’s always a need to engage the animals at work and play.

Simulated bamboo stems adorn some animal habitats. Ropey feeders hang from trees for tall animals who, in the wild, would get their food from above rather than from a pile on the ground. And playground-like balls, twirlable bottles containing bugs, hiding huts and life-size ‘creatures’ are sprinkled where appropriate for animals.

All year long, big cats at the zoo get to lounge on big-cat-sized hammocks woven from old fire hoses donated by firehouses around the region.

All of it is out in the open for anyone to see.

But what is rarely viewed is the face of the 25-strong team of volunteer creators of all this color, fanfare and, frankly, important enrichment stuff.

More: Enrichment at the zooCincinnati Zoo animals hide seek and learn with enrichment items.

They work in their own hideaway of sorts. Their job is to make safe and tantalizing gadgets and beds and toys that will stimulate an animal’s natural behaviors through sight, sound and texture.

Historic City Barn houses hideaway workshop

Led by Jenn Moormeier, the team operates out of the old City Barn at 3512 Vine St., in Avondale, near but not inside the zoo. You can’t miss the barn. It’s big and red-brick with an arching entrance. It was part of the fabric of the city after Cincinnati annexed Avondale in 1896 and housed horses that likely pulled wagons for the municipal street department.

Enter through a tiger’s head painted on the front door at the City Barn, and you’ll see a workshop that looks like a real-life storybook. Recently, a pale, unfinished 9-foot alligator rested on long tables in the barn. A macaw is painted on a pillar inside. Animal illustrations painted by the volunteers themselves bring a cozy surrounding as this content group works.

“We just kind of made it our home,” one volunteer says.

 A macrame rope pouch hangs from the ceiling. It was a prototype for an elephant hay feeder, and far smaller than the actual would be.

The workshop smells of paper and glue and paint like an art room in school. And yes, there are elementary school teachers (retired) at work. And there are artists (still active) among the other multifaceted volunteers who happily chat and, hands covered in whatever substance is necessary at the moment, create things, or pieces of things on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

‘The heart, the brains, the soul of the operation’

The volunteers here say Moormeier is a humble leader. Rarely accepting of accolades for what she does, she guides with expertise and a keen sense of each of the volunteer’s strengths. She combines this with vigilance about safety standards for what they create for animals.

“She is the heart, the brains, the soul of the operation. She thinks up all these things, comes to enrichment days and she has a job for everybody,” says volunteer Janet Bierley, a retired first grade teacher from Forest Hills School District. “She knows what our capabilities are, and she gives us jobs within our capabilities ‒ and things we’ve never done.”

Moormeier meets with animal care staff about enrichment items that keepers request for the animals they care for. She develops the design for each project, making sure that every part of the structure is safe for the animals that will be using it, says Karen Johnson, a retired teacher from Madeira and volunteer.

As she painted paper mâché turtle shells destined for animals in the zoo’s Night Hunters habitat, Johnson said that the work gives the volunteers, not just the animals, their own kind of enrichment.

Moormeier was once a zoo horticulture volunteer and has led the enrichment-making team for more than a decade. She’s always working, her charges say.

She knows what’s what: What materials are safe for which animals, what types of activities work for a particular species’ needs. She has researched everything. And she even has an old-fashioned file drawer set in which manila folders contain information and natural history on various animals. If it’s an herbivore, that’s noted. Some materials, she knows, can’t be used with these animals. And so on.

Volunteers embrace the team effort

“This is such a tight-knit group that we celebrate each other as we complete projects,” said Johnson. “It’s not all about me. It’s about us.”

Sometimes, a project’s volunteers don’t even see a finished product, because they all share the work.

Occasionally, animal keepers will alert the crew about when their work will be put out for the animals to enjoy.

That was the case when the enrichment volunteers made actual-size zebras for various habitats, and one was placed in the African painted dogs’ zoo home.

Bierley went to see, and she says she’ll never forget the dogs’ response.

They were instantly captivated, and the first dog charged to the zebra. “It took a bite out of the nose!” she said. “They were yipping the whole time.” One would tear a chunk out of their decorative prey and then another took a turn. Until it looked like a shredded carcass.

“It was just destroyed in a matter of minutes,” Bierley said, laughing.

After all those hours making it.

Not just for animals

These craft wizards enjoy problem-solving, and their work extends beyond animal keepers’ requests sometimes. The marketing department usually ask for the volunteers’ help to make a variety of decorative items for holidays such as Valentine hearts, Christmas packages or crafted pumpkins, depending on the season.

Currently, the group is hosting a bunch of Festival of Lights zoo animal lanterns at the barn, awaiting repairs.

“Santa has his elves, we have our enrichment volunteers,” said Michelle Curley, spokesperson for the zoo.

Love of animals, conservation, wildlife guides mood of volunteer crew

Every year, the volunteers on this team produce about 250 enrichment items, zoo officials said.

Among the treasures are wooden structures for climbing with platforms and tunnels. Bird gyms with perches and levels for different views. Birthday toys, reflective structures for animals big and small.

Their dedication comes from Moormeier and each other, they say. But their passion also stems from the animals.

Lis Kemper of Columbia Township is an artist who both works at a paying job and has volunteered for about five years with the team. On a recent day at the City Barn, she silently painted detailed alligators on burlap sacks that will be placed in some animals’ habitats for play.

“Animals all over the world are struggling,” she says. “And we get to provide something that makes the animals more comfortable in their environment here. You’re doing something for animals.”

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Cincinnati Zoo volunteers enriches zoo animals’ lives

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