Creative keepers test canine taste buds

25 March 2021

Making the most of the warmer weather, carnivore keepers at Werribee Open Range Zoo have donned their aprons and devised a tempting icy taste test for the Zoo's pack of African wild dogs.

Large ice blocks flavoured with blood, Vegemite, lactose-free puppy milk and chamomile tea were spread across the curious canines’ habitat in an exercise to determine which cuisine reigns supreme. 

African River Trail Keeper, Christina Speckamp said that, in addition to the tasty treats providing instant relief on a hot day, choice and variation through enrichment are essential to maintaining positive animal welfare.  

Enrichment is a terrific way for us to mentally and physically stimulate our animals and promote species-specific behaviours, such as scouting and exploration, Ms Speckamp said. 

While Vegemite may seem an odd choice for a pack of African wild dogs, keepers periodically introduce new and novel flavours and scents into the habitat as a form of sensory enrichment. Salty, yeasty and herbaceous flavours and scents mimic the variety that may be encountered in a wild environment.  

The incredibly curious wild dog pack scouts its territory for any signs of change and approaches new smells with a coordinated and communicative display. Less than a teaspoon of Vegemite is diluted into ice blocks as a hot weather refresher, which is all that is needed for the yeasty odour to stimulate their sensitive noses. 

Ms Speckamp said that, as the exciting new scents settled, the blood and milk ice blocks proved most popular.  

Puppy milk and blood are certainly favourite flavours amongst the pack. We will occasionally test different flavours and scents throughout the year to make sure the enrichment continues to be engaging and stimulating.”  

African wild dogs are considered as critically endangered with an estimated wild population of fewer than 7,000 individuals