After a 9-year-old family friend asked a TCU art professor if he had ever made toys for elephants, the Zoo Enrichment Project got its start.

Cameron Schoepp, a TCU associate professor of art, started a class called the Zoo Enrichment Project, where 15 students make toys for animals living at the Fort Worth Zoo.

“Each one of these objects brings something to increase positive behavior in their environment,” Schoepp said.

Schoepp and Victoria Bennett, an assistant professor of environmental science, put the students into groups, with each group building a toy for a specific animal, including black bears, river otters, black rhinoceroses, red kangaroos and orangutans.

The zoo provided recommendations on what animals would be good to work with, Schoepp said.

Then, students did research on what materials would be suitable for their respective animal.

“The zoo’s been really supportive,” said Beau Hartweg, a doctoral science education student. “They’ve given us good feedback and helped us kind of figure out and finalize how this design might actually work in the exhibit space.”

While some of the materials used to build the toys were donated, such as Styrofoam, epoxy and Plexiglas, some of the money for materials came out of the students’ pockets.

“Ours wasn’t too bad, because the materials weren’t that expensive,” said Alexis Ackel, an environmental science graduate student, whose group members each spent $150 on materials. “But for some of the other guys, they’ve had to do GoFundMe because their materials are more expensive.”

Students said they are happy to make toys that promote positive natural behaviors in these animals.

“Making rhinos happy is important!” said Mallory Melton, a senior environmental science major. “It’s prehensile lip is what it uses most in the wild and it’s not using it at all in the enclosure.”

The class will present the toys to the animals in early December, and the public will be able to see the students’ creations in the enclosures, Hartweg said.

“That’s the goal,” Hartweg said. “We hope that this will be something that everybody can see at the zoo.”