James meets meerkat mates

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James Mobb, winner of Taronga Zoo's School Enrichment Design Competition. Photo: Willie Mobb
James Mobb, winner of Taronga Zoo’s School Enrichment Design Competition. Photo: Willie Mobb

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It’s one thing to design playgrounds for children, but what would you do if tasked with designing one for animals?

It’s not a challenge many of us will have to face, but it’s one that James Hay was excited to tackle.

Tasked with creating an enrichment for the Taronga Zoo Meerkats, the creative 13-year-old Holy Cross College Ryde student took it head on, winning the Zoo’s School Enrichment Design Competition.

As winner, James and his science class were treated to a day at Taronga Zoo to see the meerkats introduced to their new equipment.

The competition called for students across New South Wales to put design and production skills to the test by submitting a new and exciting enrichment design for animals found at Taronga Zoo.

More than 200 group and 600 individual entries were received with designs for echidnas, meerkats or bilbies. After watching videos of Meerkats playing, James was ready to put his design skills to the test.

“I have loved Meerkats since I was little. They’re so small and cute, I just always loved them,” James said.

“Seeing them play with my design was just a really awesome experience.”

After designing the enrichment on his own, James approached his grandfather, Willie Mobbs, for help building the prototype.

The prototype uses a cleverly designed small climbing frame for the meerkats, with small holes to hide food in and mesh tape for them to grip. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
The prototype uses a cleverly designed small climbing frame for the meerkats, with small holes to hide food in and mesh tape for them to grip. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Willie’s background in construction made this a fantastic opportunity to spend some time together and pass on invaluable skills.

“I’m very impressed that James took on the challenge afforded to him by the school,” said Willie.

“To run with it, put the work in and ultimately realise a concept that was buildable and successful was a great achievement.”

James said the process of building was tricky and that he was grateful to have had help from Willie, particularly when changes were required for the design.

“It was very up and down. The original design had to be changed when we were building it,” James said. “The original design was meant to spin and move more”.

The designing duo used a thick wooden base and PVC pipes to construct the prototype. The end result was a cleverly designed small climbing frame for the Meerkats, with small holes to hide food in and mesh tape for them to grip.

Courtney Frost, the School Education Manager at the Taronga Conservation Society Australia and NSW Department of Education said James’ design was chosen because it best met the requirements laid out in the Enrichment Design Checklist.

“His design was chosen as it was safe and sturdy, easy to clean and re-use and the correct dimensions for the meerkats,” she said.

“It challenged the meerkats as they either had to use hand eye coordination to reach in and collect the meal worms or use physical strength to rotate the arms.”

Excited by the response and the outcome of this competition, Taronga Zoo plans to run initiatives and competitions focused on outreach for students who can’t attend the zoo and STEM programming again in the future.

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