Elephants, Robotics, and Teens Together at Oregon Zoo
By Bill LaMarche
Portland, OR - The Oregon Zoo's Asian elephants have been getting fitter this summer, thanks to some local teenagers.
Three Catlin Gabel students recently revived a six-year-old, out-of-service environmental enrichment device for the zoo's bull elephants. The device was initially designed by Portland State University students to mentally engage the elephants, while also encouraging them to exercise.
Unfortunately, wiring in the machine had become tangled, and zookeepers didn't have the resources to upgrade it -- until the tech-savvy high schoolers stepped up to the challenge.
Trevor Burtzos, Natalie Farci and Cole Perkinson are robotics students and recent Catlin Gabel graduates. The trio became involved with elephants after Tony Vecchio, then-director of the zoo, spoke to a school assembly about the importance of animal enrichment.
"We wanted a hands-on senior project, and working with the zoo's enrichment program presented an excellent opportunity," Perkinson said. "It was the perfect chance to apply our technical skills and help enhance the lives of the elephants."
The original project evolved from the zoo's desire to promote the overall health and fitness of its elephants. PSU mechanical engineering students were chosen from the top of their class to help the zoo increase the amount of time elephants spent walking while keepers were away.
"Elephants that exercise, in general, are in better health than those that don't," said Mike Keele, acting zoo director and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival plan coordinator for Asian elephants. "These students took a complex problem and came up with an ingenious solution."
According to Joe Sebastiani, the zoo's elephant manager, the bull elephants receive one bale of hay per night. Using the same amount of hay, the PSU students implemented a "pay-as-you-play" distribution system that provided hay as a reward. Employing a conveyor belt, they designed a machine to deliver a portion of hay each time an elephant completed a specific walking assignment.
Sadly, the device developed technical difficulties and fell into disrepair, so elephant keepers had to scrap the idea; however, the Catlin Gabel students presented a solution and set out to reprogram the device.
"We only had three and a half weeks to complete our senior project, so we dove headfirst into troubleshooting," Burtzos said.
After discovering some wiring issues, the students created a new central control board and replaced the water-damaged sensors in the elephant yard. The group kept detailed notes of their work and wrote an operations manual for keepers in the event of future technical difficulties.
"It was great to work alongside the keepers in an out-of-school environment," Farci said. "We had to figure everything out on our own without help or guidance from our professors. It was invigorating."
Thanks to the students' adjustments, the enrichment machine now triggers at random times during the evening, minimizing predictability and allowing elephants the full benefit of the activity. Two sensors placed in the east yard activate once an elephant completes its exercise program, resulting in the distribution of hay. The conveyor belt is placed out of reach to protect it, and hay is delivered through a small slot in the wall.
"For me, it was not only great to improve the lives of the elephants, but it was incredible to expand my knowledge of engineering through real-world experience," Perkinson said.
Perkinson and another Catlin Gabel student are currently working on a second elephant enrichment project, which has potential for use in zoos nationwide. Their apple launcher performs functions similar to the hay-distribution machine but is cost-effective and easily transportable.
"While the hay machine is wonderful for stimulating elephants in the current exhibit, the apple launcher provides cheaper and more sustainable enrichment opportunities," Perkinson noted.
Although Burtzos, Farci and Perkinson plan to leave for college soon, Catlin Gabel's robotics team will continue working with the zoo to implement additional enrichment activities and increase the number of sensors in the elephant yard.
"Adding sensors increases the randomness of the activities, encouraging elephants to work harder for their reward," Farci explained. "We're excited to have the team continue improving elephant enrichment even after we're gone."
As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Oregon Zoo is committed to animal welfare, and is working diligently to provide pioneering environmental enrichment efforts for its elephants and all zoo animals. Zoos are working hard to make daily enrichment activities a reality. The objective of enrichment is to improve the welfare of zoo and aquarium animals. Environmental enrichment uses a variety of methods and devices to provide animals with a stimulating environment full of behavioral opportunities.
The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington's pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles, Oregon spotted frogs and Kincaid's lupine. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
The zoo opens at 8 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors are encouraged to ride MAX or take TriMet bus No. 63. Visitors who take the bus or MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.
General admission is $10.50 (12-64), seniors $9 (65+), children $7.50 (3-11), and infants 2 and under are free; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo's Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.
Caption: Tusko is getting more exercise this summer, thanks to three former Catlin Gabel students, who revived an out-of-service enrichment device to help the Oregon Zoo's elephants. Photo by Brock Parker, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.
Oregon Zoo * 4001 SW Canyon Rd. * Portland, Oregon 97221 * 503-226-1561
To view Oregon Zoo's web page on Zoo and Aquarium Visitor, go to: http://www.zandavisitor.com/forumtopicdetail-382-Oregon_Zoo
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I especially liked if you go to the zoo's homepage and click on the info about naming the baby, the winner says she'd like to be able to tell her dad that a penguin was named after him for his birthday. Adorable!
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Asome news on the new baby! I agree with everyone here on the fact that animals should not be in captivation. If you want to check out a really cool place in Thailand where you can care for elephants check out http://www.elephantstay.com this place is a sanctuary for retired working elephants, it's an amazing place and they do so much good for the animals who live there. I went a few months ago and it was amazing.
It's ridiculous to try extrapolate zoo animals diet to human beings, and it flies in the face of all science of the last 30 years that looked into nutrition and health research. Maybe Rudy Socha was being sarcastic? I hope so.
I fully agree with you when it comes to the captivity of orcas. These animals live considerably shorter, unhealthier lives than they normally would have in the wild. I am disgusted by what I have seen at Sea World. They claim to be trying to educate people on the animals when really it is all nothing but a circus with the animals being made to perform to attract customers. I am a little more on the fence however when it comes to some other species of dolphins, such as the ones they keep at Vancouver Aquarium. While I do not support the capture of wild dolphins, I do recognize the fact that there are species that actually live longer and perhaps healthier lives in captivity than in the wild. One of the neat things at the Vancouver Aquarium is that none of the dolphins were captured for the purpose of entertainment: they were all animals that were rescued after getting caught and injured in fishing nets and are unable to return to the wild due to their injuries. I have seen the shows and the aquarium are truly focused more on educating visitors than trying to entertain them at the animals' expense.
I know that Christian is dedicated to her aquarium job and to the rehab of sea turtles. I am proud of her.
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I think we should move on from having dolphins in captivity now - we all know this isn't good for them.
The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is a magical place. The flora, fauna, remoteness and beauty are exquisite. Another interesting aspect is how the indigenous people there live. To learn more and see photos taken by indigenous children in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, you can visit ninosdelaamazonia.org
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