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Potter Park Zookeepers Make Holidays Festive For Animals | Messages From The Mitten

Two of the zoo's spider monkeys
Potter Park Zoo
Six spider monkeys call the zoo their home.

We’ve all noticed changes in our lives since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s even true for the animals at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing which saw a spring and summer without the typical crowds of people.

Now that it’s the winter, when typically, most of us would be gathering together, Potter Park’s zookeepers are making sure the animals aren’t left without some holiday cheer.

Annabell Marcum is a zookeeper at Potter Park Zoo. She’s the lead keeper for the carnivores and primates.

“I think that animals are incredibly perceptive. So anytime anything changes, they notice, even if we don't see a big change in their behavior, it's still a factor in their lives,” she said.

I think that animals are incredibly perceptive, so anytime anything changes, they notice, even if we don't see a big change in their behavior, it's still a factor in their lives.

For keepers like Annabell, it’s been an adjustment to make sure the animals stay engaged and entertained without the typical rush of people each day.

“Keepers have made some extra efforts to participate with the animals that way, playing with the otters at the glass or spending our lunches sitting in front of exhibits just hanging out, so they've got something different to investigate or watch or pay attention to.”

Months after the state shutdown, the zoo reopened in a limited capacity, but that doesn’t mean things have completely gone back to normal. That’s including the way Potter Park’s zookeepers make the holidays special for the animals.

Every day, zookeepers add enrichment to exhibits. It might be a new toy or a different snack. It could be anything that will keep the animals healthy and encourage them to act as they would in their natural habitats, but during the holidays, the keepers like to add a festive flair.

tiger playing with ball
Credit Potter Park Zoo
The zoo's tigers get paper toys and Christmas trees in December.

“Tossing a Christmas tree into the tiger exhibit might not make a whole lot of sense at first, but when we start to think about the natural behaviors of that tiger, they would do a lot of scent marking to communicate with other tigers,” she said.

The season is also typically a time for keepers and the zoo’s volunteers to gather and make some of those holiday enrichment items.

“This year, volunteers are creating paper trees and folding snowflakes and making their enrichments at home, and then they're going to bring them in to us,” Marcum said.

Some of them went to the zoo’s six spider monkeys. Paper wreaths and Christmas trees hid monkey biscuits and vegetables for the animals to tear into.

Marcum explains how the enrichment helps the monkeys act as they would in the wild.

“They, one, have to figure out how to get to it, and that probably means that they're eating up in the branches which is a much more natural way for a spider monkey to spend his time and to be eating,” she said.

“He also has to figure out how to balance and coordinate and where to put his feet and where to hang from his tail, and he'll get to use his prehensile tail, to figure out how to rip into this thing while it's hanging from a rope or a branch or something in the middle of the exhibit.”

They chittered and chattered when they found the surprises hidden in each package.

“We're doing everything we can to get together in spirit and having our volunteers and our groups within the zoo working separately, and then still managing to get all the pieces of the puzzle put together, so that the enrichment can happen,”  she said.

Marcum says it’s been difficult not being able to get together with her coworkers and the zoo volunteers like normal this year but working towards their goal of keeping the animals healthy and happy has kept everyone still feeling like a team.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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