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Werribee Open Range Zoo

Kitty glitter shines light on lion health

6 May 2019

Something surprising and sparkly is happening in the food preparation area of Werribee Open Range Zoo’s lion enclosure.

Big cat keepers are sprinkling various colours of glitter on the meat being prepared for the carnivores in an innovative way of shining a light on their health.

Known in the animal care industry as a faecal marker, this occasional, animal-friendly addition to the meaty meals allows Werribee Zoo’s experts to keep track of whose poo is whose when studying the shimmering samples.

“People are often very surprised when they find out we use glitter in our line of work,” said Lion Keeper Nicola McCleery. “But with social animals, like lions, it can be really difficult to monitor faeces when you don’t know whose is whose. This is a really simple, safe and effective way to monitor the health of our animals.”

So how does the kitty glitter work?

If keepers have a concern about a particular lion’s health, the animal is assigned a glitter colour. These colours range from fluorescent orange to iridescent green.

One of the lions – two-year-old Kibibi – is currently being monitored,

“Kibibi’s colour is pink,” Ms McCleery said. “She’s been having some difficulty with her digestion lately, so we’ve been using pink glitter in her meat to discover if there’s anything wrong.”

To add glitter to a lion’s food, keepers make a cut in their meat and insert a small amount of veterinary-approved glitter. Glitter is chosen over dye as it doesn’t interfere with the sample’s consistency. 

The lion under observation is initially separated from the pride and fed the glittery meat,  then the rest of the lions are fed together as a pride.

When it comes to collection time, keepers can identify the cat’s scat and therefore connect it to its owner for analysis.

“If we think the faecal sample needs testing, it gets sent off to our Veterinary Clinic,” Ms McCleery said.

The glittery poo yields a goldmine of data, including information about hormones, stress levels and digestion.

“It’s much less invasive than collecting the same information using blood draws or any procedure that might require anaesthesia,” Ms McCleery said.

The research technique is quite common for animals in captivity and even sometimes in the wild – it’s also used with Werribee Open Range Zoo’s Serval cats – but most visitors don't get close enough to the poo to realise what sparkly secrets it holds.

“This is just one more great tool we have for managing the health and welfare of the animals in our care,” Ms McCleery said.