TCU brings art and science together to benefit Fort Worth Zoo

An interdisciplinary course titled Zoo Enrichment launched this semester within the College of Science & Engineering and the School of Art.

An interdisciplinary course titled Zoo Enrichment launched this semester within the College of Science & Engineering and the School of Art.

Fifteen students, including artists and sculptors as well as scientists interested in ecology, the environment and biology, selected species and exhibits at the Fort Worth Zoo that they believed could be enhanced to improve quality of life for the animals and the zoo experience for patrons.

Led by Cameron Schoepp, associate professor of art and art history, and Dr. Tory Bennett, assistant professor in the School of Geology, Energy and the Environment, in conjunction with Dr. Jenny Elston, curator of Conservation and Behavior at the Fort Worth Zoo, the program allowed students access to the zoo and zoo keepers to develop ideas and fine-tune plans for their projects.

“The idea for the course stemmed from a conversation I had with a nine-year-old friend of my family who had seen a video about ‘toys’ that students built for elephants at a zoo in Massachusetts,” said Schoepp. “The idea intrigued me and involving the sciences seemed like a natural progression. Bennett’s experience and enthusiasm, coupled with the support we received from Elston, have been invaluable.”

Exhibits selected included the North American River Otter, Red Kangaroo, American Black Bear, African Black Rhino and Sumatran Orangutan. Students made their selections based on types of stimuli the animals naturally encounter as they forage for food, collect water and defend territories.

Otter Chaos, the team working on the North American River Otter exhibit, designed a structure to mimic a beaver lodge. The Red Roo Rousers designed a woven basket to replicate bushes where kangaroos would naturally search for food. The OUKB team also designed a foraging structure to provide mental and physical stimulation for the American Black Bears as they discover provided food. The African Black Rhinos benefitted from the Rhino-you-di’int student team that created a browse-feeder to stimulate natural browsing behavior. And, last but not least, the Tangerine Dream Team designed a drinking structure to replicate a tree hole where orangutans typically get water.

Students installed and presented their projects Dec. 14. Zoo officials–and animals–couldn’t be happier with the experience or the results.

“The goal of enrichment is to encourage the expression of natural behaviors by animals to enhance their lives in zoos,” said Elston. “It was exciting for the Fort Worth Zoo to have this opportunity to partner with TCU and we were impressed by the creativity of the students in developing their projects. The finished products definitely made-the-grade with the animals, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of the animals when engaging with them, and each piece will offer mental and physical stimulation for a long time to come.”

“Our students rose to the challenge. The project took a lot of hard work and dedication, yet Cam and I were still taken aback by how quickly the zoo animals interacted with and used the objects,” said Bennett. “The success was a direct result of the collaboration between artists and scientists and we hope to make this a permanent cross-listed course for art and environmental sciences.”