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Werribee Open Range Zoo

Werribee Zoo reveals one-of-a-kind Snake Exploratorium

8 March 2019

A vertical maze, scent trails, a sunbaking sand bed and heated swimming pool: it sounds like a luxury reptile resort, and for the Madagascar Ground Boas at Werribee Open Range Zoo, this is a reality.

The Zoo this week unveiled its one-of-a-kind Snake Exploratorium, a mobile terrarium-like enrichment space designed to provide the zoo’s six slithery sliders with a variety of sensory experiences that stimulate them both physically and mentally.

Basically, it’s brain training meets the gym for snakes. And they’re seriously loving it.

Separate from their enclosure, which is designed for long-term living, the space is an always-novel, ever-changing environment for the animals to explore for some extra enrichment.

For Learning Experiences Manager Kirsten Ryan, the journey from concept to creation has been a rewarding one. Ms Ryan, whose job is all about connecting people with wildlife, pitched the idea as part of Zoos Victoria’s Willy Wonka program – an initiative that encourages staff to invent novel and unique animal enrichments ideas. The Snake Exploratorium was kindly funded by The Cochrane Family.

“It’s so important for us to create dynamic environments for all our animals and this enrichment space is designed to provide that for our slithery reptiles,” Ms Ryan said.

Although Madagascar Ground Boas are big fans of laying around, it’s essential they are also given opportunities to use their minds and bodies in a variety of ways, like they would in the wild.

The Snake Exploratorium trades dumbbells and treadmills for a heated swimming pool, a variety of substrates to slither through (such as moss, peat and sand scattered on top of a heat mat for basking), and a vertical maze made from wooden pegs that allows the snakes to build some serious core strength.

“Maintaining muscle tone is important for the health of our snakes,” Ms Ryan said. “Preserving good muscle tone is essential to keeping our boas healthy, including assisting the digestion process.”

And for the mental enrichment? Enter the scent trail - the smell of rats and a variety of flora, including Eucalyptus, is spread throughout the enrichment space and act as a reptile treasure hunt, encouraging the snakes to move through the wide variety of obstacles and terrains as they taste and smell the curious scent.

Another important design feature is the ability for snake keepers to regularly renovate the enclosure by redoing the substrates, proving that change is just as good as a holiday when it comes to snake welfare.

“The ultimate art of good reptile keeping is creating micro habitats within the snakes’ environment to provide choice,” Ms Ryan said. “To be able to offer them a variety of substrates, water elements and various ‘furniture’ within their environment is really exciting.”

The Snake Exploratorium is entirely mobile, allowing the enrichment space to be set up in different locations at Werribee Open Range Zoo when in use. Glass walls give the added benefit of plenty of natural light while providing visitors lucky enough to spot it a front row seat to the snakes.

“Given the variety of environments we’re providing the boas, we should be able to show visitors a range of behaviors including basking, climbing, swimming and hunting when the Exploratorium is on display,” Ms Ryan said. “It’s a great opportunity for visitors to observe the different personalities of the snakes and watch them move and explore like they do in the wild.”

And with a combination of a cooling/heating system, heat mats and heat lamps, the boas enjoy the perfect temperature all-year-round.

Spot the Exploratorium over the news few months as it begins to snake its way around Werribee Open Range Zoo.