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How (And Why) UC Students Are Challenging Zoo Animals

Zach Fikenworth
A Malayan tiger checks out a specially equipped PVC pipe designed by UC students.

The brains of some Cincinnati Zoo animals are now more actively engaged after University of Cincinnati students designed new enrichment devices for them.

In a UC honors class, teams of students were challenged to design puzzle boxes and interactive feeders for tigers, giraffes, penguins and rhinoceros hornbills. Future engineers, designers and even a finance major worked with members of the Cincinnati Zoo staff to gain insights.

Once finished with the design and construction, the students put their enrichment devices to the test. The giraffes liked their feeding box so much they left the visitors hand-feeding them according to now-graduate Lara Koenick.

She describes the box. "Basically there are these holes on the side of an acrylic box and they have to figure out where the holes are located and they have to pull the food on the inside of the box out so that they can eat. And because there are these wiffle balls inside the box they have to be able to manipulate the balls to be able to access the food." Koenick says they are using their 18-inch tongues to do this.

Freshman Zach Fickenworth thought he would never have an opportunity like this as a finance major, so he jumped at the chance to take this class. His team designed enrichment with PVC pipe, which stimulates all the senses including hearing.

Credit Colleen Kelley/UC Creative Services
Zoo team leader Michael Land, left, listens as UC students Garrett Krueger and Zach Fickenworth explain the features of their tiger enrichment device.

"I was able to control the Bluetooth speaker on my phone and was able to see the tigers' reactions when I was playing different sounds on different YouTube videos of animal sounds."

Fickenworth says it appears they liked the barnyard animal noises best.


The rhinoceros hornbills were challenged with a feeding device. It drops grapes if the birds successfully line up the inside tubes by pulling the strings. Another one sprays water when the hornbill pulls the string.

Credit Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services
Students studied the bird to learn about their natural behaviors.

For the little penguins, students made a faux kelp forest and floating fish feeder. These help the diving birds to stay in the water longer. The zoo says this is normally a challenge for them because they don't really need to swim, the food just shows up for them.