Wild, captive and domestic animals all retain their ability to interact with the plants they have co- evolved with to survive and thrive in any environment, including captivity. Unfortunately for most captive animals, they are not offered this chance. Nakai is one of the lucky ones.
Nakai is a 4-5 year old male snow leopard residing at the Alaska Zoo. He came to the zoo when he was separated from his mother who was in a zoo in the Eastern US at 9-10 months of age, rather young for separation to occur. One of the male keepers from Alaska was present when he was separated from his mother and travelled with him back to the Alaska Zoo. He has had aggression towards male keepers ever since leaving his mother. Typical behaviour around males includes pacing, string, growling, following inside enclosure, pawing, and sometimes lunging and roaring. The zoo was interested in seeing if applied zoopharmacognosy might help him cope with having male keepers and possibly reduce his stress and anxiety.
The zoo’s Curator had read Caroline Ingraham's account of helping Ronja, a female Amur Tiger with aggression towards males and requested I work with Nakai. This was a major departure for the zoo as usually only the veterinarians are able to administer anything to the animals other than their food and enrichment. Their trust and confidence in me is greatly appreciated and a significant part of the success of this experience. I was only to provide olfactory interaction rather than something Nakai could ingest. I also was initially asked to only offer remedies outside of the cage, however upon seeing Nakai’s intense interest in the oils being offered, it was approved to offer oils on pieces of wood. 1-2 drops were applied to wood slices and allowed to soak in so as to not sit on the surface of the wood and provide any danger of ingestion. I assured them we could have significant results within their required parameters and the project was approved.
We began the first session with a male keeper in the room standing directly next to the enclosure as he normally would when he is taking care of Nakai and Molly, the female snow leopard. Nakai followed him intently, growling the entire time, pawing, crouching low, and watching him closely. At one point, after I turned off the video camera he roared fiercly at Tim when he spoke and lunged at the fence towards him. We then had Tim leave the area and Rachel, the Enrichment Coordinator and myself continued to work with Nakai. Each session we were the only ones present, except for the last session when a male keeper and the Curator came to watch Nakai’s behaviour.
We began working with Nakai by offering small pieces of wood with 1-2 drops of calming essential oils, including Frankincense (fear), Rose (has a strong affinity with the heart and reduces adrenalin production), Neroli (for seperation, which he interacted with very intently), Valerian (calming), Angelica Root (helps open animal up to healing and using the deeper parts of the brain)
Once we determined the emotionally supportive remedies he had selected, we set about to prepare to re-introduce a male keeper to Nakai with his supporting oils around him. We first offered all the oils he had selected in his enclosure with him, including Frankincense, Angelica Root, Neroli, Rose Water, and Valerian. We put all the wood blocks a distance apart so we could tell clearly which ones he interacted with. Additionally I applied the same oils to the keepers pant legs and hands. We provided him time alone with his oils, and he first went directly to Valerian, rubbing and inhaling deeply from the wood. During this time he also worked with his Rose and Angelica Root.
We then opened the door for the male keeper to enter with the selected oils on his clothing and hands, standing a bit away from the enclosure at first. Nakai looked at him but didn’t move toward him or growl. I then asked the keeper to take a step toward the pen, still standing still and not speaking.
Nakai watched him, but was unconcerned and not pacing, in fact he yawned a big releasing yawn. I then asked the keeper to walk closer to Nakai into the area he was in at the beginning of the video, an enclosed area between Nakai and Molly where he usually doesn’t like men to stand. Nakai paced a bit around him, but did not growl at him. The male keeper was standing still and not speaking at this point. Nakai walked around him a couple times, and then to our amazement, laid down right next to the keeper! He was totally calm, not growling, twitching or panting. The keeper had never seen him act this way, and commented that it was definitely not typical behaviour he had seen.