12 January 2020
The hunting simulator
The hunting simulator is a great form of enrichment for all animals who like to be in the big hall. It serves as physical therapy for big cats who need it, and as physical exercise for the rest, but above all it is a way for the animals to behave naturally and stimulate their instincts.
We use the hunting simulator twice a day, with four animals, one at a time. The big hall has all kinds of obstacles, like the big rock, tree trunks, ponds and toys. When they’re not hunting, the animals make good use of these obstacles. They bathe in the ponds, play with the toys, sharpen their nails on the tree trunks and relax on the rock. During the hunting sessions these obstacles are important too, for they need to be avoided. Hunting trains the agility and coordination skills. The animals keep an eye on the prey but at the same time they need to see the obstacles and move around or over them.
The system consists of five winches; four in the corners and one in the middle, running through the centre point on which we hang the prey. We operate these winches by means of a joystick. From the balcony we have clear sight of the whole hall, so we operate the system from there. We can move the prey to anywhere in the hall and we can also adapt the height.
From start to end result
Our animals need to learn how to hunt. After all, it’s unnatural to have this thing moving over your head. But then again, it has a nice piece of meat…
When an animal takes part in a hunting session for the first time, we start by just letting him or her get acquainted with this unfamiliar thing. We put up a piece of meat and stop the simulator in the middle of the hall, in front of the hatch through which the animals enter the hall. This means they can immediately spot the meat when they enter, but they can investigation at their own pace. We don’t interfere with this. Moving the system around happens during the second session. The big cat tears off the meat, and that’s it. It’s very important that the whole event is fun for the animal and that they don’t get any negative associations with the system. Should the system start moving during the first session and it frightens them, there’s a chance they become afraid of the simulator. Because there’s no previous positive association and it hasn’t rewarded them yet, it minimizes the chance that they will start hunting. If the first time was a success, we will move the system a little bit the second time. If that goes well, we move it even further the next time, and so on. Every animal is different, and we adjust the pace of process to that. The aim is to get them to enjoy something they don’t know. The hunting instinct is there, sometimes on the surface, sometimes hidden deeper, so as soon as they are comfortable with the system and the prey moves away from them, then in most cases they will go after it.
Some animals, like Ayla, become very good hunters. Others, like Aslan or Brami, are less interested.
Here’s a video of Cesar, who picks a piece of meat off the simulator for the first time.
The meat we use on the simulator is beef. We cut it in long, flat pieces of about 500 grams. This shape and weight ensure that it can be eaten easily and will not get caught in their throat. We tie the meat to a couple of elastic bands, which we attach on a few cotton strings. The meat, as soon as it is caught by the big cat, will tear off, usually leaving the string and elastic bands on the simulator. Sometimes they come off with the meat and the animals eat them. This is not harmful; the string and bands leave their body the natural way. In the very beginning we had to figure out how much string and bands were needed to secure the meat to the simulator so that it wouldn’t fall off but could be torn off by the lions and tigers. After some trial and error, we now know the exact ratio.
Operating the system is not as easy as it looks. We now have quite a few volunteers who are good at it, but they had to learn. You also have to have a certain feeling for it. You need to get to know the system, know how it responds and know how to anticipate. There is a slight delay between what you do with the joystick and what the system does, so you’re always operating ahead. The system has some safety margins, so that the simulator doesn’t hit the glass of the balcony. If you enter those safety zones, the system will stop and be blocked. We then have to get the animal out of the hall (depending on where the system stops), so that we can fix the failure. When trying to outrun the fastest hunters, it’s quite hard not to drive the system into one of these safety zones. So, someone who is a bit technical and has a good hand-eye coordination could operate the system but hunting with the animals is another matter! The second, even more important aspect, is that you need to interact with the animal in the hall. For that you need to know the animal, know their behaviour and know their weaknesses. You’re also operating ahead, so anticipating the lion’s or tiger’s behaviour is extra important. You have to make sure the animal uses its body in the right way. Jumping is fine, but in the right direction. Some animals are not yet good at avoiding the obstacles while following the prey. All beginners have to learn this. Some animals make weird jumps, so we keep the simulator a bit lower, so they don’t jump. We also do this with beginners. Another strategy is to start high and lower the prey during the session. Tigers and lions hunt in different ways, and also their individual behaviour varies. As an operator you have to be able to make fast and adequate decisions and act quickly. It’s quite a skill! Here’s a video of Patrick, concentrating on operating the hunting simulator.
Previous to the hunting sessions we play a tape to the visitors, which explains about the hunting simulator. Then the keeper talks a bit about the animal that’s about to hunt, about where he or she comes from and how they usually hunt. This way the visitors know what they can expect. But it regularly happens that the animals do something totally different from what we just talked about. Great…
The Dutch local news station NH nieuws have been making a television series for a while now, called ‘Remy en zijn vrienden’. Which means they regularly come to film here. It’s not always about Remy or Stichting Leeuw, but also about Landgoed Hoenderdaell. Last Thursday they came to film Cesar during a hunting session. It was Cesar’s second hunting session. Patrick did the interview this time and he did a good job. It can be quite daunting to do an interview with a camera in your face. But confidence comes with practice.