SF Zoo — Animal Enrichment

tags: user research, prototyping, iterative design

Our goal

For the project: to augment animal welfare, to improve the experience of guests by increasing visitors’ engagement. For the zoo: to consult for Stanford d.school-driven expertise. For us: to gain practice in design methodology in an unconventional scenario.

My part

I worked with the lions with 3 other women. We shared equal responsibility for all work, ranging from animal observations, user interviews, background research, brainstorming, prototyping, implementation, and evaluation. Throughout this process, we were guided by subject-area experts in animal behavior.

The story

We had 2 weeks and a $500 budget to design, implement, and evaluate an enrichment for lion exhibit at San Francisco Zoo. Typically in design thinking, user interviews are key methods for understanding user needs. However, lions don’t speak English, so it was challenging to directly “interview” our client. Instead, we relied heavily on alternative information sources; we analyzed camera trap footage, researched natural lion behavior, and interviewed the lions’ zookeepers.

Our solution

We realized that although there were abundant visual and auditory enrichments for the lions at the San Francisco Zoo, most zoos neglect considering olfactory enrichment. Based on a series of interviews with zookeepers where they described manually bringing poo from various prey animals to the lions, we set out to automate and randomize the dispersal of poo or other scent packets. We then evaluated impact of our enrichment by mapping thermal data of the enclosure and tracking lion activity through camera trap footage.

My process


  • Design and implement environmental enrichment to enrich active time of lions at the San Francisco Zoo
  • Improve guest experience at the lion exhibit
  • Be convenient for keepers to upkeep
  • Must be non-food nor fragile enrichment, and should engage lions’ short attention span

Learning and Research

  • Incorporated theory on enrichment design
  • Installed camera trap and generated time lapse to monitor lion behavior
  • Created ethogram to quantitatively assess change in enclosure usage
  • Measured radiant temperature of exhibit using infrared technology

Ideas, Options, and Tradeoffs

  • Robotic prey toy: stimulate hunting behavior, but hard to lion-proof
  • Laser pointer: interviews with keeper suggested it to be ineffective with lions
  • Glass fabric strips: simulate stalking behavior, but incongruous with personality of male lion
  • Long manifold: increase spread of scent dispensary, but unnecessary and less secure


  • Designed, built, and implemented olfactory enrichment
  • Research results demonstrated statistical significance in increased enclosure usage towards more visible regions to guests
  • Produced thermal map, used to inform future enrichment design plans
  • Featured in Stanford University news, KALW (NPR) Radio, Gizmodo, and others