Late last year I was lucky enough to take a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the big cat facilities at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. I met one of their female tigers, plus three lions, including their magnificent male named Bruiser. All I can say is that you have not lived until you’ve seen a lion’s mane up close. Bruiser's was so clean, so fluffy. And the colour of perfectly baked scones.

Other than the plastic barrels and rubber balls, their enrichment storage room looked like a teenage girl’s garage sale. Boxes upon boxes filled with well-loved stuffed animals; essential oils piled on high. A small, white crate filled to the brim with half-filled bottles of yellowish perfumes. It’s all part of the big cats’ month-long enrichment program that’s been designed to keep their bodies, minds and senses active, and the inspiration comes from how researchers are getting big cats in the wild to come out of hiding.

Just over ten years ago, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) were trying to figure out how to count the remaining Asiatic cheetahs that were spread in isolated populations across the Dasht-e-Kavir desert of central Iran. It was estimated that there were less than 100 in the wild, so there was not much hope of getting the information they needed from camera traps or heading out there on foot. So George Schaller, Peter Zahler and Luke Hunter from the WCS asked Patrick Thomas, the mammal curator at the Bronx Zoo in New York, to come up with some alternatives.

The plan was the get the cheetahs to rub up against hair snares - basically a big brush nailed to a tree - because a small hair sample is all that’s needed to extract an individual’s genotype, just like a scat or tissue sample. Scent was the obvious lure, but what smells would attract these sleek, gorgeous, and highly elusive cats? Thomas tested scores of colognes and perfumes on the zoo’s cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers and found that that the overwhelming favourite was Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men.

In 2003, the team tested the scent on big cats in the wild in a private game reserve in South Africa, in preparation for Iran's Asiatic cheetahs. According to Dr Guy Balme, Director of the Panthera Leopard Program in Africa, the results were mixed. While the leopards and lions showed some interest - one female leopard rubbed the scent so much, she ended up in a fit of uncontrollable sneezes - the cheetahs didn’t respond one bit. The team suspected that unlike the Bronx Zoo cheetahs, the wild cheetahs in South Africa had so much to smell, they couldn't care less about the cologne.

But late last year, Miguel Ordeñana from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles reported better luck with his pairing of Obsession with wild jaguars and camera traps in Nicaragua. According to Jason G. Goldman over at The Thoughtful Animal, the attraction probably has to do with a chemical compound called civetone, which is one of the world’s oldest perfume ingredients. Originally extracted from the scent glands of civets but now made synthetically, civetone proved to be the perfect lure for jaguars. They'd rub themselves all over the perfumed spot in an attempt to replace the civet scent with their own, and get snapped by the camera trap in the process. I’ll let Jason explain why Obsession’s vanilla tones were likely to be the icing on the cake for these curious cats.

So back to our big cats in Sydney. I had a chat to Louise Ginman, the Unit Supervisor for Carnivores at Taronga Zoo, about what scents their lions, tigers and snow leopards love most.

BC: Do you use Calvin Klein cologne as part of the cats' enrichment program?

LG: We spray it around the enclosure in lots of little concentrated sprays, and when the cats come out and smell it, they literally roll onto the ground, rub their cheeks all over it, and rub their faces with it. I guess it’s kind of like the reaction that you get from a cat when it’s enjoying catnip, they just seem to be in absolute heaven.

BC: Where do you get the perfume from?

LG: We get so many donations, we ask our staff here for donations of perfumes that they don’t like - because no one generally wants to give up the good stuff. Each animal is different, so different animals will respond to different smells. We notice out of all the animals that we give it to, we definitely get the strongest reaction from our lions and tigers and our snow leopards as well. They don’t react to all perfumes - with some of them they’re like, “meh,” just like us I guess, some of them they’re not real keen on. But others, like the Calvin Klein one, whatever is in that, cats love it. They really, really roll and cheek-rub and they just look to be in heaven.

And it’s lovely that we can do something like that to help break up their day, and give them something to do. Often with carnivores, food is used a lot with enrichment because they really do respond well, but with a smell, it sort of opens up a whole new realm of the types of enrichment that you can do with them and ways of keeping the animal active and stimulated.

BC: Other than perfume, do you use other scents for the cats’ enrichment programs?

LG: We use spices and essential oils – there are about 28 different essential oils that we give them. Our aim is to get that really nice, strong reaction from them where they really are enjoying something that we put in there. And they might spend five, ten, fifteen minutes just rubbing the one scent, and any kind of physical activity like that is good for them.

Nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger get the biggest reactions. They’re the three best spices to use, but we also use things like cardamom, turmeric, fennel, all spice, cloves, and oregano. Fresh herbs as well - rosemary, lavender, thyme - we rub it around the rocks and logs.

And essential oils, the ones that work best are the strongest ones, like palmarosa and peppermint. There was one eucalyptus oil that our male tiger for some reason just loved. You might put something out there and one cat just has no interest whatsoever, whereas another one will just think it’s the best thing in the world. They go straight to that spot, lie down and rub their cheek in it.

BC: What else do you do for enrichment?

LG: Whiskers Milk Plus on paper plates, and we hide food in cardboard boxes. We smear different types of food in a cardboard box and seal it really well so they have to use their teeth to break it apart. They love cardboard boxes. Instead of just sticking their head into the box and getting the meat out and being done with it, they will pluck at the boxes, break them up into tiny pieces and think it’s wonderful.

It’s exactly what they’d do if they caught some prey - before they’d eat it they’d pluck the fur, or they’d pluck the feathers before they actually eat the muscle meat. So they do the same thing with the cardboard box. It’s to get them thinking and working and living a full life.

BC: Have you ever left them a challenge that was too hard?

LG: When I was a newer keeper, I put a big blue barrel into our snow leopard holding area, and I thought they’d love it and they’d jump on it and roll around it at nighttime. Well, it turns out that they didn’t love it, they were actually scared of it and they didn’t come into the den system that night to eat their dinner. When you’re learning about these animals, sometimes you might give them something that’s too hard for them.

One day, again when I was a newer keeper, I gave them a whole feathered chicken in a log, for our female tiger to use her paw to grab it and pull it back out. But it turns out she didn’t want to use her paw, she wanted to just use her mouth, and she couldn’t get it out. So then I had to shift her out of the area, go in, remove the chicken, and put it somewhere easier so then she could get it.

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