Students from UTC’s Psychology and Biology departments have teamed-up to participate in an ongoing project that provides environmental enrichment for animals at area facilities. This project is overseen by Dr. Preston Foerder of the Psychology department in collaboration with the Biology department’s Drs. Hope Klug and Loren Hayes. With funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, students are working with the Chattanooga Zoo, Tennessee Aquarium, and Reflection Riding to produce stimulating habitats for animals in the facilities’ care.
“It’s really nice because we get a mix of Psychology students and of Biology students, so they all work together and they all have their own strengths,” explained Sarah Farnsley, the program’s coordinator. “Some of the students are very creative and some are very hands-on and want to build the raft, and some of them are just really good at coming up with ideas for enrichment.”
The enrichment process involves researching the animals housed at the facilities, understanding what enrichment has been done with them before, and studying the animals’ natural needs. From there, the students narrow down a list of potential habitats to enrich, and think of ideas for what they could do to meet the animals’ needs. The students’ pitches are filtered through professors participating in the program, and then tweaked before being presented to the facility.
The project’s first location was at the zoo. Over the spring, the team worked with the zoo’s coyotes and found ways to stimulate them in their habitats. From there, the project moved to the aquarium, where students more recently spent their summer working with otters.
Farnsley explained that the otters’ keepers were concerned with behavior, and how the otters were interacting with their environment. The otters were spending a large amount of time out of eyesight, at the door where their food was supplied. The team brainstormed ideas on how to have the otters interact in other locations of their environment, and decided to build a raft.
“We drove out to the forests of Georgia and had these lumberjacks give us a log, and it was great. We had two halves and we kind of worked on one of them. With the other half we said, ‘Let’s just see if this floats.’ It did not. We put it in someone’s pool and it sank very quickly.” Farnsley continued, “That was starting to be crunch time where we needed a raft in a day or two.”
Farnsley explained that the second time around the team built their raft with bamboo and rope. This version was much more successful.
The students on the team all managed blogs to record their experience with the project. Psychology major Carson Hicks nicknamed the raft the “S.S. Why I Otter.” In his blog, he described his observations over the days following the raft’s “maiden voyage,”
“At first they [otters] were extremely curious about it and would push and pull it from one side of the exhibit to the other, chewing and smelling it intently.” Hicks continued, “Once they were more familiar with it though, they seemed to like to use it as a place to recline on the water.”
For the fall semester, the team is working with Reflection Riding. They are brainstorming pitches now, and will soon present to Reflection Riding’s staff. They are also including students from Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA) in their project. Farnsley said that the girls from CGLA may participate in research and observation similar to the UTC students, or they may provide enrichment to Reflection Riding’s birds by reading to them.
“Because even that, just having someone talk to the birds is changing up their environment for the day,” Farnsley explained.
For Hicks, this project provided valuable experience that he can carry into his professional career,
“I would have to say that the most valuable aspect of this project, to me, was the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I had done work with animals before, but it always seemed a little less formal. I suppose that could be due to the freedom and authority that the aquarium gave us in terms of how we wanted to conduct the enrichment. I found it to be a good representation of work in the field of animal psychology and good experience for any future opportunities that I come across,” Hicks said.
For Farnsley, this has been a project where “everybody wins.”
“The students are getting some research experience for their resumes. The animal facilities, they’re so busy, and they do an awesome job, but sometimes they just want to do more than they have time for. So, they benefit from having someone build a raft for them, that they may have wanted to do, but they just didn’t have the time. And then, of course, the animals; It’s nice to see them engaging with something new in their environment,” Farnsley added.