When Zoe Jirovsky hoisted a spoon feeder over the railing inside the Giraffe Experience area of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo on April 2, Phoebe the giraffe immediately took notice and stuck out her long purple tongue for an inspection.
The interaction was the perfect endorsement for a group of Huskers who stuck out their own necks to engineer enrichment toys for three of the zoo’s newest residents — Phoebe, Allie and Joey.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Theme Park Design Group partnered with zoo officials to design and build colorful feeders and other playthings that will help entertain and care for the giraffes, who arrived in September 2018.
The group has developed attractions for humans, including a pulley swing set at Lincoln Children’s Museum, but this is the first time they’ve tackled a project for animals.
“It was definitely a challenge,” said Jirovsky, a mechanical engineering major from Chandler, Arizona. “We’re not giraffes, so it was sometimes hard to predict if the design was good. We had no idea if the giraffes are going to respond to this.”
But respond they did, and giraffe keeper Nikki Shemanski was impressed.
“Everything looks really great, and we’re going to have a lot of fun with these,” she said.
Giraffes only sleep an hour per day, in short bursts, and spend about 20 hours eating, Shemanski explained. Having a variety of feeders and sensory activities for them is critical to their long-term welfare. They also have 18- to 20-inch tongues that require exercise, so making them work for their food is equally important.
Shemanski and the zoo’s director of creative strategy, Ryan Gross, have worked with the group since November on the project. The partnership grew after club adviser, David Martin, reached out to zoo CEO John Chapo and asked if there was a way for students to help with the expansion.
“(Shemanski) gave us a stack of designs that we could look at and our job was to find ways to combine aspects of various designs and create something that was aesthetically pleasing and with lots of color,” Jirovsky said.
Borrowing from the zoo’s color palette, the group first laid out a design language, and then tackled an obstacle they hadn’t encountered before.
“We had to make sure anything we did used materials that are safe for the giraffes,” said John Strope, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and founder of the group. “For example, certain species of wood are toxic to giraffes. We’re working from a list of approved substances.”
“That was a difficult to find materials we could use that were also colorful and beautiful to look at,” Jirovsky added.
It didn’t slow the students’ creativity. The group was able to finish five toys that each serve several purposes: the spoon feeder, a treat box, log feeder, hose mobile and wind chime. They’re making some slight modifications to the toys after meeting with Shemanski, but the toys will be in use soon.
Strope said there are plans for more, as time and budget allow.
The zoo expansion will open to the public May 10, and Strope, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, but came to the zoo when he visited family in Nebraska, is excited to be a part of its growth.
“This expansion is going to put the zoo on another level, and it is really cool to be helping with that,” he said.