Trevor Burtzos, Natalie Farci and Cole Perkinson used their engineering skills to simplify a device designed to help the elephants get more exercise
by: Jonathan House, Sam, the Oregon Zoo’s most famous youngster, enjoys the zoo’s water feature last Wednesday.

The Asian elephants at the Oregon Zoo can now experience part of the wild with their new environmental enrichment device created by three recent Catlin Gabel graduates. The three students repaired an out-of-order hay-feeder at the elephant exhibit for their senior project as part of the school's robotics team.

Trevor Burtzos, Natalie Farci and Cole Perkinson used their engineering skills to simplify a device designed to help the elephants get more exercise. The new-and-improved mechanism consists of two sensors in the elephant yard and an automatic hay dispenser, which releases hay at completely random times for the elephants.

The Catlin Gabel students worked closely with senior elephant keeper, Bob Lee, to create a device that would uniquely benefit the elephants.

'The elephants are encouraged to move around and investigate the sensor just like an animal in the wild doing those behaviors to get food,' Lee explained.

The device also helps the elephants exercise throughout the night when the keepers are not present. It simulates the wild because 'it's an enrichment device that puts out their hay all night, instead of giving them their food at the last check before we all leave,' Lee said.

Perkinson, a 2009 Catlin Gabel graduate who plans to attend Reed College in the fall, provided his opinion on how the device will benefit the elephants.

'Asian elephants are not used to living in confined spaces like the zoo,' Perkinson said. 'They require a lot of exercise and can stay awake until as late as 4 a.m. - far after the zookeepers have left.

'Our goal in fixing the hay-feeder was to make the elephants' lives more entertaining, give them the exercise they need and, ultimately, to showcase the intelligence of the elephants to the general public.'

The elephant exhibit's collaboration with high school students has significantly improved the welfare of the elephants, Lee said. The device has also allowed the keepers to further extend their duty in providing a healthy environment for the elephants.

'They need movement, they need to think, they need to figure out problems, and devices like this allow us to provide it when we are not here,' Lee said. 'We have to design ways to keep their mind and bodies stimulated - that's the biggest part of our job.'

After participating in his high school's robotics team for four years, Perkinson put his skills to work with the other students in a real-world situation.

'An advantage of working for the zoo is that it pushed me outside of my comfort zone,' Perkinson said. 'We really had to take the project into our own hands to complete it in the 3½ weeks we had for our senior projects.'

Not only did working on the enrichment device give the students a life experience, it also allowed the zoo to work with younger members of the community.

'It gives us an opportunity to reach out and help educate kids on the zoo's mission,' Lee said. 'And, having the kids this close to the elephants helps them appreciate how complex these animals are, as well as what is going on outside of the zoo and the danger many animals are in around the world.'

Working on the enrichment device 'gives the students an opportunity to do something for school and gives us another opportunity to pass on our message to a different crowd,' Lee said.

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