The Pumpkin-Feeding Tradition at American Zoos

Image Courtesy of Santa Barbara Zoo

Annie Huang

Zoos across the nation are capitalizing on the United States’ affinity for Halloween by hosting Halloween-themed events. While zoos primarily design these events to engage humans, they aren’t forgetting about their animals, either. One of the primary attractions at these Halloween celebrations involves giving zoo animals pumpkins for spectators to observe their behaviors.

How the animals react to the pumpkins varies depending on their species and individual personalities. Some animals, like elephants, smash the pumpkins before devouring them. Others reach into the pumpkins to get food that zoo employees have stored inside. Animals that are lithe or small enough to go inside the pumpkins — like snakes, bats, and birds — eat the pumpkins from the inside out.

Many of the most prominent zoos, including the Brookfield Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Smithsonian Zoo, Oakland Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo, have historically given their animals pumpkins for Halloween and engaged the public in the process. The Santa Barbara Zoo was not an exception to this trend, with their own celebration “Boo at the Zoo” taking place from Oct. 19 to Oct. 21.

At the event, local organizations and businesses handed out treats to trick-or-treaters in honor of the event’s theme Candypalooza. There was an emphasis on handing out sustainable and palm oil free candy in solidarity with wild asian elephants, gibbons, and rhinoceros hornbills whose habitats are being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations.

Many zoos claim that giving animals pumpkins isn’t just to please the crowds that saturate zoos around the holidays. According to most zoos who engage in the practice, pumpkins have nutritional value, can provide animals with novel stimuli, and facilitate independent food-seeking. Some zoos also use their Halloween events as a platform to promote conservation efforts.

Aside from giving spectators a novel experience, driving revenue to the zoo, and stimulating zoo animals with new objects, giving old, unsold, and/or misshapen pumpkins to zoo animals can be a form of sustainable recycling.

Both children and adults enjoy watching animals interact with pumpkins, as it is an activity that is novel for spectators and animals alike. This has resulted in videos of animals eating pumpkins going viral, such as one that features a group of Galápagos tortoises at San Diego Zoo. These videos have publicized the practice of giving animals pumpkins and potentially attracted new visitors to participating zoos.

Readers who want the opportunity to watch animals interact with pumpkins can attend the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Thanksgiving Day Pumpkin Smash on Nov. 22.