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National Zoo animals looking for some Santas

A fennec fox at the National Zoo in Washington plays with a dog feeder toy filled with crickets. 
 (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)
A fennec fox at the National Zoo in Washington plays with a dog feeder toy filled with crickets. (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Zookeepers want Frisbees for the pandas. They want feather dusters for birds. They want nature CDs for the zebras and a Double Decker Super Slide for the otters.

Like little kids everywhere, the animals at the National Zoo have wish lists this time of year. But their wants, which are posted on the zoo’s Web site and can be donated through January, aren’t just for fun. They are specifically designed to make life in captivity more stimulating, more wildlifelike, zoo officials say. They are meant to help animals feel more a part of their species and less a part of a display.

The process of stimulating an animal’s senses to replicate life in the wild is called enrichment, and it’s an increasingly emphasized part of zoo life, as researchers test different approaches to pique animals’ instincts and as activists vie for happier living conditions for those in captivity.

So although Little Tikes toys might resemble nothing of the Southeast Asian streams where small-clawed otters slide down rocks and flop in the water, zookeepers think they will provide a similar level of amusement.

“They like to slide, hide under things, snuggle in corners,” zookeeper Jenny Spotten said.

The otters are making do with their old toys for now – they crawled all over one another Friday as they took turns bouncing and rolling three toys filled with raw fish and mealworms – because they haven’t gotten the slide or other toys on their list, such as the Naturally Playful Teeter Totter.

Santa has come slowly to the nation’s pets so far. About a dozen people have brought in wrapped packages, and nearly as many have given money for toys through the zoo’s Web site.

A “gift tree” in the visitors center has ornaments bearing the various requests, including a hot-air popcorn popper so the zookeepers can make a low-fat treat for the gorillas. Other requests include a little sleeping bag for ferrets and other small mammals who like to burrow, sheets for orangutans to play tug of war with and laser pointers for monkeys so they can chase the little red dots.

The feather dusters are meant to feel like mothers for birds that never had them, and the nature CDs are supposed to calm zebras that get skittish when big crowds come.

Despite the desire for toys and other human-style gifts, zookeepers said some presents would be kept in holding areas, out of visitors’ sight. “People like to see the natural stuff out here,” Spotten said.

Still, amid all the artificial trees and carefully crafted savanna landscapes on exhibit, it’s possible to see more flashes from the toy chest. Friday, for instance, the cheetahs chased a purple rubber ball, and the golden-headed lion tamarins picked insects from a brightly colored “crazy ball.”

Zookeepers designed other toys themselves to look less playpen and more natural. A PVC pipe burned by a blowtorch has a wooden feel and can be filled with bugs. The little monkeys use their long fingers to pick insects from them as they would from trees in the tropical forests of Brazil.

Such toys “let them use their natural hunting abilities,” explained Heidi Hellmuth, curator of enrichment and training at the zoo.

Hellmuth was hired six months ago as the first full-time staff person to coordinate enrichment and training for the animals, and she is surely the only professional in Washington with an office full of soft dog toys and a lion pacing outside her window.

A few months ago, she consulted with zookeepers, curators, nutritionists and veterinarians to create the wish list so visitors could contribute to their growing stash of gadgets. The Friends of the National Zoo organized the toy drive.

Hellmuth said that the wish list is versatile, and she hopes it can give people gift ideas for their own pets, because the same old toys can make those captive animals bored, too.

“We want people to see what we are doing at the zoo … and what you could be doing with your own pets at home,” she said.