Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

Watch the Video
Photo by Paul Fahy
Mary Sun Bear in her hammock

For a century, Taronga Zoo has championed a specific way of thinking about animals. In 1916, we wished for a place with wonderful animals for you. It wasn’t always a perfect formula of wishes, but it was a formula that evolved to us today being a world leader in conservation and working hard for a future with wildlife and wild places for us all.

‘Does Leo the Lion realise his luck? You need not waste your pity upon the captives at Taronga Park. They ought to be glad to be there!’ – Sunday News, 1923

One hundred years on, it’s good to look back and see how far we’ve come. Viewing our organisation’s history is fascinating. Building on decades of commitment we have learnt so much. But one of the most significant developments of our time is the importance of environmental enrichment and how we work to improve the wellbeing of the animals at Taronga; regardless if they’re furry, feathery or scaly. During the 1970s, the concept of manipulating an animal’s environment to change its behaviour was formally described as “enrichment”. Environmental enrichment is just as critical to a zoo animal’s welfare as nutrition and veterinary care.

Dr Vicky Melfi, Taronga Conservation Society’s Behavioural Biologist, says the provision of enrichment, which can include various changes to an animal’s housing and care, aims to promote specific behaviour that is associated with good welfare. “If a change is made to an animal’s management and it results in the desired behaviour, associated with good welfare, then the animal is considered ‘enriched’ and the method used considered ‘enrichment’.”

Enrichment is something that keeps life exciting and stimulating, encouraging natural species-specific behaviours in the process. Caring for such a diverse array of animal species is a challenge but it is the highest of priorities and considered on a daily basis.

Mr Hobbs is one of our resident Sun Bears here at Taronga. Mr Hobbs was wild born in the dense forests of Cambodia. It was from here he was taken from his mother by poachers and sold to the restaurant trade. As a very young cub, Mr Hobbs awaited his future on the menu confined to a small wooden crate. A twist of fate saw Mr Hobbs and 2 other Sun Bears rescued by expatriate business man, John Stevens. Being taken from his mother at such a young age means Mr Hobbs is more cautious than usual and he did not learn how to behave like a ‘real’ bear. He arrived at Taronga displaying behaviours including pacing, which are thought to have resulted from his traumatic start to his life. Environmental enrichment was considered a great way to be able to ‘dare’ Mr Hobbs to be the bear he was meant to be.

“Mr Hobbs is a very gentle bear; he loves his keepers and would stay interacting with them all day if he could, so we need to encourage him to be a bear and do bear behaviours,” shares Taronga Carnivore Keeper, Lesley Small.

In the early times, Mr Hobbs could not climb or problem solve as a Sun Bear should. These are skills Sun Bears normally learn from their mother during the first two years of life and growth. Many different objects, feeding devices and structures have been provided to enhance the life of Mr Hobbs.

“Sun Bears in the wild spend lots of their time looking for food, mainly foraging and digging in the forest floor for fallen fruits, insects and termites. They also climb trees, tearing through bark on trees looking for wild honey and ripping apart rotten logs looking for insects and larvae. This takes up a lot of their time,” says Lesley. “We spend a few hours a day on enrichment for our Sun Bears to re-create situations where they need to use their forest skills and instincts.”

Enrichment is not a single object or event; it is a process to keep the animal guessing and keep them curious while encouraging natural behaviours.

With enrichment a sense of control is offered to the animal by providing choice with opportunities to climb, scratch, dig, sniff, tear, chew, smell scents, problem solve and more. Sun Bears don’t hibernate like some other bear species but they do make nests in trees to sleep and to stay away from predators at night. Mr Hobbs is given everything he needs to make a cosy night nest, “He builds a lovely nest each night,” shares Lesley, “but he also loves finding his food in challenging ways.”

However it is not just the ‘bear necessities’ of food, night nests and climbing that is daring Mr Hobbs to be a bear. A fun, strong, curious and clever Sun Bear named Mary is helping him too. Mary came to Taronga in 2012 and is only the second Sun Bear to be born in Australia. Mary’s companionship is making a sensational difference to Mr Hobbs behaviour. Her confidence and playfulness keeps him busy with wrestling, rolling and chasing. Play is a very important part of enrichment and something wild animals will engage in regularly. Thanks to Mary, Mr Hobbs’ anxious energy and pacing is slowly disappearing and his confidence is growing. He is daring to be a bear and we think that is close to paw-fect!

By Hayley S.Kirk – Interpretation team

Media Release / Blog Category: 
Zoo location: