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Miami Zoo Animals Get Holiday Cheer With Gifts Of Melons, Gatorade And Blood Pops

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At the Miami Zoo, communications director Ron Magill says the staff is working hard to keep things as festive as possible for the animals.

RON MAGILL: A little different this year because of COVID. We don't have as many people coming through. We have limited capacity. But generally speaking, each animal during every holiday season gets specific gifts or treats, so to speak, to help their both mental and physical enrichment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The zookeepers tailor every treat for a particular species. First up, the big cats.

MAGILL: Our keepers this year did a - quite a production for the jaguars. And what they did was they created what's called a candy cane lane where they made all these candy canes. They made ice balls to make them into snowmen. And they used kind of the blood from the meat to make the ice. So they're called bloodcicles (ph). They then put boxes that are wrapped, and they put different types of meat inside the boxes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Magill says the jaguars then took a stroll down candy cane lane, knocking the boxes over for their bloodcicles. No gift is too small or too big, for that matter.

MAGILL: For our Asian elephants, we did this wonderful thing where they actually built a snowman out of cardboard boxes. And then the buttons were made out of peanut butter and melon slices. And you know, the head had a cantaloupe on it. And they also had their own quote-unquote "holiday tree" that was decorated with apples and carrots and melon slices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the merry and bright isn't only to keep animal spirits high.

MAGILL: This stimulates the animals to, you know, search and probe and find and tip things over. They took the boxes. They break them apart. They rip the wrapping paper off. All of these things are tactile. So it's a physical enrichment. But it's also a mental enrichment because they have to figure out how to get to these treats that they can smell but they can't see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you determine what makes a good treat for each species?

MAGILL: So we have our veterinary team that has to look at what's good and healthy for the animals combined with our nutrition team on what we have available through our nutrition center. And this works with the zookeepers who know their animals and know their behaviors and say, OK, what do we do to stimulate the most natural behaviors in them?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAGILL: We know elephants use their trunks to break into things and to search out things and to shake things. So for the elephants, we have, like, a big drum, so to speak, with holes in it. And we put a bunch of pieces of carrots and apples and stuff. And the elephants learn that they have to shake that drum so the pieces fall out through the holes that they can get. So it's all to stimulate natural behaviors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And while it's always entertaining for human visitors to watch the animals open their presents, Zoo Miami is being a bit more cautious about its unboxing events this year.

MAGILL: We're trying to do it now when there's not a lot of public in the park because we don't want to encourage a lot of grouping in front of exhibits. You know, we're trying to maintain that social distancing because of the pandemic. So we do it on an arbitrary time throughout the zoo. We don't make formal announcements. But there are usually people around, and people do get the opportunity to see that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, we had to ask Ron Magill about his favorite animal. He told us he likes the chimps because they're so much like us. In their stockings this year - boxes, puzzle pieces and red Gatorade - festive.

MAGILL: So it's just funny in the holidays to see the chimps take a 2-liter bottle and just guzzle away. You know, it's kind of like this - 2020 has driven everybody to drink, including the chimps. And the way they drink - I mean, they'll hold the 2-liter bottle, and they'll put their pinkie up in the air like they're drinking a cup of tea.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And is everyone at the zoo still expecting that special visitor later this month?

MAGILL: Absolutely. Santa comes every year regardless of what's going on. And it's especially important this year because not only us but the animals need a little bit of uplifting. There was so many weeks that we were closed. They didn't see anybody at all. So it's important now that we get back to a sense of normalcy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Normalcy, joy and season's greetings from Zoo Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.