Animals enjoy playtime at the zoo

NATURE'S ICE PICK: A kea tucks into an iceblock filled with fruit and vegetables and their favourite, just one peanut.
NATURE'S ICE PICK: A kea tucks into an iceblock filled with fruit and vegetables and their favourite, just one peanut.

Apes are skyping each other for a laugh and zoo staff are dancing and dressing up for the animals' entertainment.

How the tables have turned for the animals at modern zoos around the world.

At Auckland Zoo staff are always looking for new ways to keep the animals happy and healthy.

Apps for the orangutans are among things possibly on the cards as the zoo considers introducing them to a donated iPad.

Some international zoos use iPads to help understand apes' wishes and they're skyping and watching wildlife clips for fun.

Primates team leader Amy Robbins says the iPad would need a specific purpose if it was introduced to orangutans at Auckland Zoo.

Staff are investigating whether some applications would be beneficial so it's not just "an expensive toy that might get broken".

The main focus at the zoo is helping encourage animals to behave like they would in the wild.

For highly intelligent animals like the orangutans that poses a particular but fun challenge for staff.

"We joke that it's like working in a childcare facility," Ms Robbins says.

Among things staff do is dance for them and dress up in donated op-shop clothes. Males Charlie and ISam enjoy an aeroplane tyre that takes three staff to move but they can throw in the air with one hand.

Carnivores team leader Bruce Murdock says animals like the tigers prove an equal challenge.

Tigers sleep for up to 18 hours a day so it can be tough putting on a show for zoo visitors.

Zoo staff want people to see the animals in action behaving like they would in the wild to get their conservation messages across.

So meat gets hung in trees to show how well tigers climb and they're given 200kg mussel bouys that they play with like a ball.

"Whatever we do has a purpose. We impress their socks off and they get motivated to know how important they are," Mr Murdock says.

Taking photographs for this feature gave me the chance to enter the cheetah enclosure with Mr Murdock and a senior keeper.

Happily drinking lactose-free cat milk, the cheetahs could nearly be mistaken for big pussycats. Then one eyeballs me, I note how tall it is, and remember for a second how fast they sprint.

The cheetahs enjoy walks on a heavy duty lead around the zoo most days and stun onlookers.

Cheetahs are nomadic so the walk is something they get really "pumped up" about, Mr Murdock says.

Burma the elephant and kunekune pigs Neena and Alma also enjoy zoo walks. Acting team leader Laurel Sandy says Burma loves her walks, particularly into the bush in the morning.

"You can see her eyes light up," she says.

Walking the kunekune pigs gives Kids Zone team leader Hayley Paul a chance to show off their intelligence, encouraging empathy.

Among commands they know are sit, go right around and back up ("beep, beep"). They can also weave through posts on an agility course.

"People are wowed. They say they're better behaved than my dog, we hear that all the time.

"They are so intelligent, so willing to train and love going out for walks."

Kea are among the smartest creatures at the zoo and native birds and mammals team leader Tanya Shennan loves working with them.

"There's nothing they like more than shredding a rotten log but they also get puzzles with things like links to unwind - they have no problem figuring them out.

"They're such curious birds. We can see them thinking, they're considering their options."

North Shore Times