Sahar the lion knew instantly there was an intruder in his yard. There, on the rock from which he could survey Lincoln Park Zoo, stood a cardboard replica of a male lion complete with a lush paper mane and drawn-on smile. Sahar bounded over, stared at the stranger for a second or two, then tore it apart.
Looking on were a dozen zoo volunteers who had devoted months worth of Saturday mornings to creating the cardboard lion. Never mind the real lion had demolished their hard work in less than a minute, they were oohing and ahhing with glee. The volunteers know that even in the zoo world of "enrichment," where a cardboard lion pinata is not a fun toy but a serious tool used to stimulate various behaviors and instincts, it's still a proverbial jungle out there.
The objects they shape out of recycled cardboard and papier-mâche in a zoo workroom are designed with specific animals in mind and are meant to get chomped on, torn up, flipped over, climbed on, explored, even piddled on.
"It's kind of like performance art. It's gone in an instant," says Theresa Pasquarella, a Chicago graphic artist who has made pinatas for 12 years and serves as a leader of the group. "Your handiwork is in his jaws, that's the essence of it. Someone is drooling or running around or totally annihilating something you painstakingly put together. There's not a sense of loss. … The project is complete and you are on to the next one. You're inspired."
On a recent snowy Saturday morning earlier this month, volunteers got to watch various animals interact with their pinatas.
Nearby, at the Regenstein Center for African Apes, a gorilla group, or "troop," tore into brightly colored cardboard and papier-mache flower pots to uncover treats hidden inside. (Non-toxic kid's paint is used, says Pasquarella, who has sampled nearly every color.) While some of the adults chewed on the recyclable cardboard, which replicated some of the fibrous materials chomped on in the wild, the babies explored the soon-empty pots.
In the Regenstein African Journey building, a band of tiny meerkats swarmed over and through an eight-sided cardboard box turned into a "barrel of fun" whose painted wood-like surface were studded with open portals.
Sahar would later be sitting proud and pretty atop his rock with two torn-off cardboard legs at his side.
Zoo visitors will have opportunities to learn about the pinata enrichment program: Earth Day weekend, April 26-27, and a "Cinco de Mayo Pinata Party" held a day early on May 4, which will include pinata-making workshops (there's a fee). Details: lpzoo.org or 312-742-2056.