Fall means many things — Thanksgiving, Halloween, the beginning of scarf weather and snuggling by the fire — but if you're a follower of big cat rescues and zoos on Insta and Twitter, you'll know it's got another meaning: pumpkins. A lot of them. (Editor's note: Perhaps you didn't know this was a thing. Well, now you do. You're welcome.) It's become tradition for many big cat enclosures around the world to give their lions, tigers and other captive big cats pumpkins to play with, and upload the results to social media. Needless to say, it's cute as heck.
The practice of giving captive animals interesting things, like pumpkins, to play is called "enrichment," and it has nothing to do with Halloween. Just as we give domestic pets toys, scratching posts, behavioral training and walks, animals kept in human care rather than in the wild need stimulation to keep them happy. It's a strong part of wild animal husbandry in zoos, sanctuaries and other environments worldwide.
Pumpkins are part of a year-round program for big cats, according to Susan Bass, director of public relations for the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, which houses a huge variety of big cat species, from caracals and ocelots to jaguars. "Big cats in captivity are bored silly, so at Big Cat Rescue, we provide them with enrichment items every day to help keep them mentally stimulated," Bass tells Bustle. "That includes holiday enrichment like pumpkins during October each year."
"Environmental enrichment includes the regular provision of dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities," says animal captivity organization Wild Welfare. "An enriched environment should promote a range of normal behaviours [sic] that animals find rewarding as well as allowing animals to positively respond to potential stressors."
A lot of the need for enrichment in captivity comes from the fact that captive animals don't experience the stresses they would in the wild. "In captivity, food and water is supplied, territory is already delineated, social groupings are usually fairly stable and structured, there are no predators to avoid, and quite often mates are selected for them," notes Colchester Zoo. "With all the extra free time, the animals have a need for new and entertaining or challenging activities. That is where the role of enrichment comes in." And that's why big cats get pumpkins.
So, why pumpkins? They're typically unfamiliar objects for large animals like lions and tigers, who probably haven't seen the Charlie Brown Halloween special, and anything new is exciting to a big cat in captivity.
"The cats like to investigate anything new in their environments; they enjoy pouncing on and batting around their pumpkins and sinking their teeth into them. Some of our cats even like to "drown" their pumpkins in their pools! It's a fun way to keep them mentally healthy," Bass says.
Big cats are natural predators and very curious, and pumpkin flesh itself isn't particularly harmful to felines — but it's important to note that the jaguars and other cats who are being given pumpkins are treating them as playthings, not as food sources. (They're pretty well-fed at all times.) If you want to imitate this trick at home with your bored housecat, get it a pumpkin-shaped catnip toy and watch it experience the seasonal joy.