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Play can be very productive!

The Dallas Zoo has more to say about play. The feature article in this issue of Focus Member Magazine explores the study of play behavior in animals big and small. We reserved this special content just for you which highlights how we promote play behavior in our otters and reptiles. Enjoy!

Because research on play behavior is still so new, conclusive data has yet to clarify why so many animals play. The most popular theory points to a single purpose: learning. Practice makes perfect, whether you’re performing in a piano recital, defending your territory from animal intruders, or chasing down prey for dinner. Animals in human care don’t face the same biological stressors as their wild counterparts, but their play incorporates all of the same natural behaviors.

Keepers often mold these actions to create new behaviors. Asian small-clawed otters have a lot of energy, especially the youngest Tasanee. A naturally investigative creature, Tasanee would find stones and other objects in her habitat and present them to keepers. Recognizing this as a form of play, and wanting to repeat it more often, keepers captured this behavior. Tasanee now brings keepers her enrichment items when she’s ready for a switch and is capable of returning objects that fall into her habitat instead of ingesting them. “We aim to promote natural behaviors,” says keeper Audra Cooke. “I always consider how it’s is going to impact their life – how it’s going to make their life better.” Identifying the specific type of play an individual animal likes and using it to further improve its health and well-being is one of the most complex and rewarding parts of a zookeeper’s job.

Play is most commonly associated with mammals. The more similar an animal is to humans, the easier it is to see the patterns of play we recognize in ourselves. Move further from humans and other mammals, and the discussion becomes more controversial. Little is known about the cognitive ability of reptiles and amphibians, but research suggests we may have a lot to learn.

Reptile keepers remain on-alert for signs the animals are not engaging with their environment. Promoting the natural behaviors of snakes, tortoises, frogs, and other non-mammal animals can be difficult. “I always look for how an animal is sitting,” offers keeper Maree Pascall, who loves working with snakes. “If normally it’s in a spiral and basks in one spot, but suddenly he’s laying out, that’s not good.” Tongue flicking, on the other hand, is an indication that a snake is highly interested. Habitats for reptiles are changed frequently, whether that means adding branches for upward movement or adding a new type of sand so that the environment has a novel texture. As with any other animal, keepers of non-mammals know that each animal is different; the better you know its unique personality, the better you can provide high-quality care.

Capture a behavior: a training technique in which a specific behavior is rewarded repeatedly so that an animal learns to repeat the behavior when asked.