Discovering how ‘wild minds’ work at the Oregon Zoo

March 29, 2012 - 2:48pm

Animal cognition is the focus of keeper talks from spring break to September

The Oregon Zoo is home to some of the world's greatest thinkers – many of whom are furry, four-legged or feathered. Starting this week and running through the summer season, the zoo invites visitors to explore these "wild minds" with a series of keeper talks, feedings and informational displays.

"Wild Minds: What animals really think," a collaborative exhibition hosted by the Oregon Zoo and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, sheds light on the lives of some of the zoo's most intelligent and creative inhabitants.

"Most of us have wondered at one time about what goes on inside the head of a companion or a wild animal," said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at the zoo. "To what extent are they similar and different from us? What makes us so special? Are we special? This exhibit aims to address those questions, and hopefully spur new ones."

During their talks, keepers will share their knowledge and experience on topics of animal cognition, such as the following:

  • Can elephants work together to accomplish a task?
  • How do chimps create a mental map of where they live?
  • How do otters use tools?
  • How do birds use their calls to communicate with each other?

In addition to the talks, thought-provoking informational displays around the zoo show how cognitive skills once considered unique to humans – communication, use of tools, self-recognition, problem-solving – can be observed in the animal world as well.

"We hope that through a greater understanding and appreciation for animals, our visitors will be more motivated to create a better future for wildlife," Shepherdson said.

Keeper talks and feedings take place daily through April 1 and weekends only from April 7 through June 10. Daily talks resume from June 16 through Sept. 3.

View the calendar


The schedule is as follows:

  • 10:45 a.m. cougars
  • 11 a.m. primates – Red Ape Reserve
  • 11:15 a.m. elephants
  • 11:30 a.m. sea otters
  • 1 p.m. polar bears (feeding only)
  • 1:30 p.m. Predators of the Serengeti (demonstration stage)
  • 2 p.m. bats (feeding only)

The zoo talks and displays complement a variety of "Wild Minds" videos, games and displays at OMSI now through Aug. 19. One video there, "Wild Minds at the Zoo," tells the story of the Oregon Zoo's enrichment programs. Guests can learn how papier-mâché gifts, special foods and other items offer animals mental and physical exercise, and improve their quality of life.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, "Wild Minds" is a project led by the New York Hall of Science in partnership with the Staten Island Zoo, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Oregon Zoo, the California Science Center, Santa Barbara Zoo, Science Central, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, COSI (Center of Science and Industry), and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.