GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Most people will never come face to face with a Sumatran tiger, but for Carolyn Mikulskis, it’s often part of a typical workday at the Greensboro Science Center.
As senior keeper, Mikulskis’ job is not just about making sure animals have food, water and shelter.
Much like people, animals need to be mentally and physically stimulated in order to thrive. It’s why her keeper duties include overseeing the training and enrichment program at the science center.
Animal enrichment may look different than the enrichment to which humans are accustomed, but the premise is the same, according to Mikulskis.
“As a person, what do you do in your free time?”
Do you watch television, go on walks or spend time with friends?
“Those are all enriching items to a human,” Mikulskis said.
Keepers look at animals on an individual basis. Even if among the same species, animal personalities vary, the same way different people may prefer different amounts of socialization, exercise or entertainment.
Taking the animal’s captivity into consideration, what would they naturally be doing in the wild?
The howler monkeys might normally climb high into the trees to forage for food, Mikulskis said, so the science center replicates that experience by placing food near the highest point of their exhibit.
In a recent enrichment exercise with Rocky, a 4-year-old Sumatran tiger, Mikulskis froze food onto a large ball. When Rocky placed his paws onto the ball and jumped at it, the ball rolled away, down hills and through the tiger exhibit.
“He has to chase it to get his food,” Mikulskis said, much the way a tiger in the wild would have to chase prey. “He also has to hold down the ball to eat like he would hold down a carcass.”
The untrained eye might not recognize some enrichments for what they are, she says. A wooden platform Mikulskis built for Rocky might just look like a place he can rest, but it’s more than that.
“He can use it as a scratching post,” she said, but even just jumping up and down from the platform is a natural behavior that keepers like to see in their animals.
“We want to see them doing what they’d do in the wild in captivity.”
With time, Mikulskis says a keeper learns what kinds of enrichment individual animals would enjoy.
After being in the keeper field for nearly 15 years and with the science center for seven of those years, Mikulskis has worked with nearly all the animals at the science center in some capacity.
Enrichment keeps her busy, but training the animals also takes up a huge chunk of her time.
Once animals are trained, other tasks — cleaning and performing maintenance in exhibits, giving animals shots and placing animals under sedation — become much easier.
Rocky, for instance, has been trained to allow keepers to handle his tail. From the tail, a veterinarian technician can draw blood.
“This allows us to do blood work without having to knock him down,” Mikulskis said, “which is great because big cats and anesthesia don’t always get along.”
Training techniques usually involve every animal’s favorite form of enrichment — food. With that aid, science center keepers can even train animals people might think of as untrainable, like snakes.
With patience and practice, “we can get them to move from one cage to another,” Mikulskis said, which makes tasks like cleaning cages much more manageable.
After so many years working with animals, Mikulskis said she has gained a “healthy respect” for all the animals she’s cared for, but she doesn’t fear them.
Even caring for animals like Rocky, she’s unafraid, confident in her abilities to work with them safely.
“After being around them all the time, sometimes the ‘wow’ factor is a little less,” Mikulskis admits.
But some days, it hits her that she’s working alongside animals that other people could never imagine handling.
“It’s like ‘wow, I’m standing next to an endangered Sumatran tiger,’” Mikulskis said.
“And that’s pretty cool.”