Using high-tech toys to improve foraging in captive rhinos

Backed by Catherine Simmons, Lynda Bowlin, Laura C. Black, Cecily Keating, Jenny Buchanan, Nathan Rowader, Jane Ellen Searight, Donna Myers, Deanna Nielson, John Kelm, and 165 other backers
San Francisco Zoo
San Francisco, California
DOI: 10.18258/4495
Raised of $15,000 Goal
Funded on 6/18/15
Successfully Funded
  • $15,027
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 6/18/15

About This Project

A Foobler is a toy that dispenses food when your pet plays with it. We want to build one for the San Francisco Zoo's rhinos. Animals need to engage with the environment to maximize their psychological well-being. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this in zoos is to make animals 'work' for their food. We want to build a novel feeding system to engage our rhinos in more active foraging, and assess their behavioral responses.

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What is the context of this research?

The behavioral wellness program at the San Francisco Zoo ensures the psychological well-being of animals in the zoo's collection. Researchers assess animal wellness and provide enrichment opportunities to improve animal well-being when necessary.

Large herbivores can be difficult to keep active in captivity. The rhinos at the San Francisco Zoo love playing with large balls in their exhibits, making them good candidates for a Foobler.

The original Foobler was designed for dogs and contains multiple food pods linked to a timer which releases food at regular intervals. A bell sounds when food is released, and the dog has to play with the Foobler to get the food out. We want to build a rhino Foobler to encourage our rhinos to 'forage' for themselves instead of waiting for mealtimes.

What is the significance of this project?

Animals need to engage with their environment to maximize their psychological well-being. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this in zoos is to make animals 'work' for their food, which can entail simple things like making them search their enclosure for food instead of putting food in the same place at the same time everyday.

The Foobler prompts pets to investigate and manipulate the toy to get food out. In this way, cats or dogs are prompted to 'work' to obtain their food. Although carnivores and herbivores work differently to obtain food, the psychological need for exploration and foraging is similar across species. We will assess the rhinos' behavior to see how it changes when given a novel, dynamic foraging opportunity compared to scheduled daily feedings.

What are the goals of the project?

With the requested funding, we will be able to:

  • Work with the Foobler team to design and build a rhino-sized Foobler
  • Assess the rhinos' behavior before and after introducing the Foobler
  • Keep backers informed on the progress of the design, prototyping, and deployment of the rhino Foobler through online video updates
  • Keep backers informed on our finding about rhino behaviors before and after introducing the Foobler
  • Host a symposium at the San Francisco Zoo for Bay Area backers to come meet the WCC and Foobler teams
  • Organize a webcast of the symposium for backers outside of the San Francisco Bay area


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The behavioral wellness program at the San Francisco Zoo was only recently established, so while we have plenty of ideas about ways to research and assess animal wellness, we don't have the funding to build all of our ideas. We're asking for backers for the rhino Foobler because we don't have the means to build it otherwise.

Our rhinos are pretty hard on their toys, so we anticipate building and testing several prototypes of the rhino Foobler, refining the design as Gauhati and Boone try them out.

We would like to outfit one (or several) of the prototypes with accelerometers and other sensors to measure how hard the rhinos are on their toys. We would also like to buy a decent digital video camera for filming backer updates and rhino test footage.

Project Timeline

May 04, 2015

Project Launched

Jul 15, 2017

Backer's Event at San Francisco Zoo

Meet the Team

Bethany Krebs
Bethany Krebs


San Francisco Zoo
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Jason Watters
Jason Watters
Executive Vice President - Wellness and Animal Behavior


San Francisco Zoological Society
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Fred Schechter
Fred Schechter

Team Bio

Bethany Krebs received her Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and conservation biology from the University of Illinois. Her research interests include animal behavior, animal welfare, and emerging infectious diseases in wildlife and humans. When she has free time, she's either running, playing video games, or visiting microbreweries.

Jason Watters received his Ph.D. in animal behavior from the University of California at Davis and is currently Vice President of Wellness and Animal Behavior for the San Francisco Zoological Society. His research and publications focus on animal behavior and methods to enhance zoo animal welfare – with a concentration on doing this through meeting animals' behavioral needs. For over 20 years Jason has designed and built enclosures and enclosure enhancements that promote welfare and meet the behavioral needs of numerous species from insects to primates. Jason also serves as the executive editor of Zoo Biology – the primary scientific outlet for zoo and aquarium based research.

The TGiF team has over fifty years combined design and development experience. They have brought multi-million dollar projects from concept to retail and lead successful crowd-funded projects on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo, including the original Foobler puzzle feeder.

Boone is a six year old black rhinoceros, and Gauhati is a twenty year old greater one horned rhinoceros. They are both newcomers to the realm of science and design.

Bethany Krebs

I have a B.S. in ecology, evolution and behavior from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and conservation biology from the University of Illinois. My research interests include animal behavior, animal welfare, emerging infectious diseases in wildlife and humans, avian ecology, and avian diseases.

In my free time I like to run, lift weights, play video games, do yoga, bird-watch, read and visit microbreweries. I've been to five of the seven continents, and I have a rather large postcard collection since their pictures are always way better than mine.

I am grateful every day for the amazing animals and people I've worked with, and for the the support I've received from communities, funding agencies, and the general public.

Press and Media

Story on SFist:

Coverage on BoingBoing:

Check out the cool toys the Foobler team builds for cats and dogs of all sizes!

The Foobler Site:

The Foobler Story:

Additional Information

You might not guess it from briefly stopping by their exhibits, but our rhinos have pretty distinct personalities. Boone is a bit of a goofball.

Whereas Gauhati likes showing off for his fans, playing in his pool or with his ball.

We give our rhinos seasonal treats and other enrichment opportunities, like this Halloween treat last October.

Project Backers

  • 175Backers
  • 100%Funded
  • $15,027Total Donations
  • $77.11Average Donation
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