A mob of meerkats at the Cincinnati Zoo now have to work a bit harder for their food thanks to a 3D printed feeder system developed in collaboration with GE Additive. Don’t worry though, the extra effort is a good thing, as the feeder enables the meerkats to forage for crickets and other insects, more closely mimicking how their species dines in the wild.
“Something that we often think about is how to mimic natural feeding behaviors in the animals that we care for,” explained David Orban, Animal Excellence Manager at the zoo. “In the wild, animals are adapted to find, acquire, and process food – and it’s not always easy! In human care though, food is always available and of good quality and balance, and in many cases, it’s consumed quite quickly. For example, one challenge that we often see when we offer live insects to some of our birds or small mammals is that they are captured and consumed in a matter of five to ten minutes. We’ve had the idea to create a more complex feeder that will extend foraging duration, in turn, extending animals’ physical activity and mental stimulation, leading to more naturally behaving wildlife.”
Orban and his team observe all the animals at the zoo on the daily to better understand their habits and patterns in captivity. This data is then used to improve animal care, addressing changes in habitat, husbandry and, of course, diet. Recently, Orban and his colleagues teamed up with GE Additive’s AddWorks consulting team to come up with more engaging ways to feed the animals in the zoo.
“To kick things off, the Zoo team showed us around and explained their goal to keep animals engaged and enriched,” said Shannon Jagodinski, lead engineer at GE Additive in Cincinnati, of the pro bono project. “We were thrilled to be working with such an atypical customer and challenge that would allow us to demonstrate that, with additive technology, the sky really is the limit. Additive technology allows a design to incorporate any shape, angle, structure or texture that is needed, with metal or plastic. The first thing that we considered was safety for the animals, keepers, and visitors and then the Zoo’s request that the animal enrichment device look natural within the environment.”
In the feeder design process, ideas were gathered from the zoo’s animal care staff and handed over to a GE Additive team, which leveraged its expertise in AM to assess the concepts and find the best solution, taking into account both the additive and animal factors. Eventually, two design concepts were presented to the zoo team, and one of them was chosen for further development.
The development process has been ongoing over the past few months – the first part was printed from recycled titanium in February 2020 – though the final product has now been implemented. Actually, the partners were fortunate in that the device was delivered just before lockdown. So, while the zoo is still closed to the public, the animal care team has been able to experiment with the 3D printed feeder, trying it out with birds and small insectivorous animals like meerkats.
The feeder itself consists of a 3D printed tree trunk-like structure that releases food into animal habitats at varying intervals. The inside of the feeder, which is where AM design really came into play, consists of a complex maze of tubes that exit the device at various points. When crickets or other insects are released into the device, they move through these tubes at varying speeds, so that the animals eat them more sporadically.
“We have seen that foraging time and the animals’ investigation and interaction last for up to a few hours in our tests compared to a few minutes, which is really exciting for us because that means we can utilize it multiple times a day and in different habitats,” said Orban. “We have really seen that a lot of animals have been interested in it and continue to stay interested in it, which is exactly what we wanted.”
With the early success of the first 3D printed feeder, GE Additive says it plans to deliver more devices to the Cincinnati Zoo. The team will also 3D print a demonstration version with an exposed interior which will be used to teach school groups and visitors about the innovative feeding mechanism when the zoo reopens.