RISD Students Create Objects to Engage Animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo

December 5, 2023

Rhode Island School of Design students create objects to engage and stimulate a variety of animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo in the course Design for Animal Enrichment

PROVIDENCE, RI – December 5, 2023 – In a studio course called Design for Animal Enrichment, Industrial Design students at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have been creating objects thoughtfully designed to provide mental and physical stimulation for a variety of animal species at Roger Williams Park Zoo (RWPZoo).

Led by faculty member Jennaca Davies (MFA 07 Jewelry + Metalsmithing), students visited RWPZoo throughout the fall to study the animals and determine their needs for enrichment, including exercise, foraging, and stimulation. They learned about the animals’ natural habitats and zookeepers' challenges in making their enclosures safe and engaging.  Experts at RWPZoo offered insights about the various animals they were designing for, including giraffes, monkeys, snow leopards, tamanduas, bat-eared foxes, servals, North American river otters, wrinkled hornbills and golden lion tamarins, and shared feedback and suggestions on projects along the way.

“At RISD, we approach making holistically, aiming to understand the larger context of the work,” says Davies. “While designing objects for these animals – from prototyping, to testing and iterating, to constructing – students employed a process based in research and behavioral observation, focusing on ecocentric design rather than human-centered design. It was wonderful to see the students’ creativity in bringing these explorations to life, with innovations that encourage problem solving and present challenges for the animals’ mental and physical stimulation. Our partners at RWPZoo were so generous with their time and knowledge throughout the semester, which was critical in designing objects that would be interesting to the animals and useful to the staff.”

The students in the course worked on two larger group projects and one individual project each. Example projects include a large spinning toy for the snow leopards, a new puzzle-like feeder for the giraffes, a see-saw for monkeys and a modified maze feeder for the tamanduas. Each project focuses on solving a specific problem or sets a targeted goal for the animal’s well-being, which may include more exercise, foraging in similar ways to how they would in the wild or something puzzle-like that engages the mind and gives the animal a unique task. Material choices are made to ensure not only safety for the animals but also durability, the ability to be sanitized as needed and, whenever possible, natural materials to better blend into nature-inspired environments. Students have been working with materials ranging from bamboo and wood to rope, fire hoses and branches.

“Ensuring animal health and well-being helps places like Roger Williams Park Zoo contribute to wildlife conservation through protection and preservation and to public education about such important social and environmental issues as biodiversity,” says Amy Roberts, chief zoological officer at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “Animals in zoos often have experiences different from those in the wild. Zoos aim to provide animals with habitats and experiences that are as close to their natural environments as possible, and enrichment plays a crucial role in achieving this goal, allowing their curiosity and intellect to be nurtured and stimulated. Collaborating with students and faculty at RISD was so wonderful as they explored and created novel approaches to enrich our animals.”

Students’ projects followed the basic principles of animal enrichment, including:

  • Habitat/environmental enrichment – adding trees, vines and perches, or using different substrates, such as sand, mulch or grass, to entice animals to navigate their habitats in new ways

  • Cognitive enrichment – exercising their minds is as important as giving them space to run, jump and climb; cognitive enrichment encourages animals to solve problems and try new activities

  • Sensory enrichment – this category stimulates all of the animals’ senses: visual, olfactory, auditory, taste and tactile, encouraging them to explore their habitats in different ways

  • Food enrichment – making food part of daily enrichment encourages zoo animals to forage and work for their meals, making feeding time challenging and fun

  • Toys and manipulations – these enrichment items can be manipulated in some way via body parts for investigation and exploratory play, keeping the animal engaged and encouraging physical activity

  • Behavioral/social – social interaction via training and structured play builds trust and rapport between zookeeper and animal; opportunities to interact with other animals (or perhaps even artificial decoys) also stimulate beneficial natural behaviors and instincts

In designing their objects, students were charged with considering a variety of criteria:

  • Design – designs should be appropriate for the specific animals, considering their unique behaviors, capabilities and needs

  • Difficulty – objects should challenge the animals but not frustrate them to the point where they are never successful at completing a given task – keep the animals engaged and curious

  • Health and well-being – designs should consider safety of use and encourage physical activity and healthy movement for the animal

  • Safety and durability – materials should be durable and nontoxic, able to withstand time and heavy use without risk to the animal

  • Ease of use – RWPZoo staff should be able to easily install, use, clean and sanitize the objects

“In recent years, the field of industrial design has continued to expand beyond its product design roots to include a greater focus on solving real-world problems and implementing projects that can help bring about positive change,” adds Davies. “I wanted to teach this course because I believe that as designers, we can work to combat issues of climate change, fight biodiversity loss and create with a sustainable focus. Animals are losing habitats at alarming rates, and humans continue to expand into their territories and negatively affect balanced ecosystems. I want my students to recognize these major issues and look beyond design that only focuses on humans. As designers, we need to be a part of the teams making these important changes and creating work that can help with the preservation of species and nature. By teaming with an organization such as the Roger Williams Park Zoo, I believe we can aid in their conservation work and help support public awareness.”

About Rhode Island School of Design
RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) is a creative community founded in 1877 in Providence, Rhode Island. Today, we enroll 2,567 students hailing from 60 countries. Led by a committed faculty, they are engaged in 44 full-time bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and supported by a worldwide network of over 31,000 alumni who demonstrate the vital role artists and designers play in today’s society.

Beyond facts and figures, what is the spirit of this community? Through a cross-disciplinary curriculum of studio-based learning and rigorous study in the liberal arts, RISD students are encouraged to develop their own personal creative processes, but they are united by one guiding principle: in order to create, one must question. In cultivating expansive and elastic thinking, RISD seeks to activate a critical exchange that empowers artists, designers and scholars to generate and challenge the ideas that shape our world. RISD’s mission, at both the college and museum, is not only to educate students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, but to transmit that knowledge and make global contributions. Visit risd.edu to learn more.

About Roger Williams Park Zoo
Roger Williams Park Zoo is Rhode Island’s number one outdoor family and tourist attraction, and a leader in conservation efforts undertaken by a zoo of its size. As leaders in conservation and animal care – we create engaging experiences that empower guests to join us in conserving wildlife and wild places. Roger Williams Park Zoo is supported and managed by the Rhode Island Zoological Society and is owned by the City of Providence.

RISD contact:
Jaime Marland
Senior Director, Public Relations / RISD
401 427-6954