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Puzzles, Mud And Animal Welfare At The Phoenix Zoo ... And Around the World

(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Zoo)
An orangutan plays at the Phoenix Zoo.

When Hilda Tresz was 17, she walked into the office of the director of the Budapest Zoo and demanded a job.

Laughing, she says, “I was a young, ignorant child who doesn't know that (you’re) not just supposed to march in to the director’s office and tell him things.” Specifically, things like: Make me a zookeeper.

She kept at it for a year. And finally, he agreed.

Pausing to remember the kind man, Tresz says, “I think he just did that to shut me up,” and laughs.

The day after she graduated from high school, Tresz started at the zoo.

Tresz actually grew up in what she refers to as the concrete jungle of Budapest. But every summer, she‘d go to her grandmother’s out in the Hungarian countryside. And that’s where she fell in love with animals.  

There were cows, pigs, geese and ducks.

One time, she realized that there were no lakes or ponds for the ducks. “So what does a good child do? Digs a big hole … fills it with water,” Tresz explains.

She made a pond.

Well, it was more like a mud pile.

Her grandmother wasn’t exactly excited to see her ducks later drying and struggling under caking brown mud. But Tresz just thought, ducks need water, right?

It was an early sign of what she’d do later in life.

At 26, Tresz and her husband packed two suitcases, one filled entirely with books, left Hungary and came to the U.S.

She ended up at the Primate Foundation of Arizona taking care of 85 chimpanzees. And she says the experience changed her life.

“Because they are just like humans," Tresz explains. "They really you are.  So they try you in every way.”

From scheming to throwing their poop at her, to even grooming her when they decided they liked her. It required an entirely new level of problem solving and patience. And in the process, Tresz became a chimp expert.

Not long after, she moved to the nearby Phoenix Zoo. And in the early 2000s, Tresz started a program around an idea that was gaining traction in the zoo world: behavioral enrichment.

“People think that behavioral enrichment is nothing else but entertaining animals, throwing a toy at them.”

But whether it’s changing the architecture of their exhibit or making animals forage and work for their food, behavioral enrichment is about giving animals items and opportunities that bring out natural behaviors that they’d have in the wild. Tresz says that means giving them a lever of control over their lives.

“When you give an enrichment item for an animal, it has a choice to interact with it or even not to interact with it," Tresz says. "And It’s a big difference. Even with humans. If you have no choice, you feel helpless. You feel hopeless, angry, depressed. It’s the same with the animals.”

In 2006, Tresz gave a talk at a conference about her approach to behavioral enrichment. And she says, that’s when it took off. 

The next day the phone was off the hook, and she had a flood of emails from people wanting to know about the program, and so she started to share it.

Today, if you go to the Phoenix Zoo, you will most likely not notice any part of the behavioral-enrichment program. Because they’re the kinds of things that humans miss, unless someone points them out.

Standing near the elephant exhibit, Tresz greets a 7,200-pound Asian elephant with the love and kind voice you might associate with greeting a little puppy. 

According to Tresz, elephants have two main activities in the wild: walking and eating.

So the exhibit has uneven terrain and logs strewn about to make the elephants walk and work their joints. There is a swimming pool and mud wallow, scratching posts and feeders. The elephants have to find the feeders with food, “puzzle feeders” that are hard to get food out of.

It may not be beautiful to the human eye, but the key word here is functionality.

In 2007, the Jane Goodall Institute contacted Tresz and today she volunteers with them.

Tresz is their only international volunteer representative with their ChimpanZoo program, and in conjunction with her position at the Phoenix Zoo as Behavioral Enrichment and International Animal Welfare Coordinator, Tresz now goes to zoos around the world to help with chimp and animal welfare.

Sometimes zoos invite her. Other times, someone reports animal abuse and she gets brought in. In those cases, zoo staff are not happy to have her, but by the end of the one week, sentiments usually change.

Recently when she left Sri Lanka, they told her, “We would have thought you are a Buddhist, because you are following the lord Buddha’s teaching without even knowing that you are doing it.”

Tearing up she says, “That made me feel … pretty good about my job. So I think it doesn't matter how I’m getting brought back to those countries. Because at the end what matters is how I come out.”

And laughing, she adds, “so far, so good.”

At least humans can talk, she says.

Animals don't have a voice, if not for people like Hilda Tresz.

Naomi Gingold is the weekend morning host at KJZZ. When’s she’s not in the studio, she’s out reporting stories in the Valley.