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Captivity done right: Philadelphia Zoo unveils walkways for their big cats

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The Philadelphia Zoo is now treating its big cats to a far more enriching experience, with enclosed passageways that allow them to leave their exhibits, but keep them separated from visitors and other animals. On May 7, 2014, WPVI in Philadelphia published pictures of the new passageways, which are already in use.

Dubbed the Big Cat Crossing, this exhibit is part of a growing trend that helps to enrich the experiences of wild animals in captivity by allowing them a change of scenery, scents, and more room to roam. According to Penn Live, the Philadelphia Zoo's CEO, Andrew Baker, said, "It becomes much more of a safari-like experience." These types of walkways enhance visitors' experiences, too.

Animal rotation has become a bigger part of zoo life for animals, in part because of public pressure for zoos to treat their animals better, according to the Penn Live article. Big cats aren't the only animals benefiting from these things; the Philadelphia Zoo also has walkways for primates and other animals as well.

The National Zoo at the Smithsonian adopted animal rotation for its elephants, which they call Elephant Trails. This series of paths, and indoor and outdoor enclosures, is meant to give their elephants access to the outdoors all year round. It's also meant to allow them to walk around more, which helps to keep them healthier and happier.

In a 2004 paper for the Zoo and Aquarium Association, Australian designer Jon Coe explained why these designs are good for animals. The abstract of the paper reads:

Immersion exhibits have changed animal zoo exhibition using 'nature' as the model for international best practice, yet even the most diverse zoo habitats don’t provide animals occupations and animals soon become habituated with resulting decrease in animal activity and visual interest for the public. Activity-based design merges immersion displays with behavioral management to increase novelty and species-typical activities. At the Louisville, Kentucky (USA) Islands Exhibits orangutan, tapir, babirusa, siamang and Sumatran tiger rotate through four habitat areas on a randomly determined schedule. Five years of behavioral observations show normal stress levels, increased activity and previously unseen natural behaviors.

Even Big Cat Rescue in Tampa does a "vacation rotation" for some of its cats. They currently have a 2.5 acre enclosure that their great cats (lions, tigers, and leopards) rotate through on a two-week basis (they're starting to plan for another vacation enclosure for their smaller cats). The different scents inside the vacation enclosure, and in zoo habitats that animals rotate through at zoos practicing animal rotation, help to stimulate more natural behavior in these animals.

Back at the Philadelphia Zoo, their Big Cat Crossing trails will eventually connect, and in the winter, when orangutans can't be outside due to the cold, the cats will have access to their rotation trails, too.

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