Aromatherapy, Where Aromas Are Everything

by David Kelly, Times Staff Writer  3-2005

The Denver Zoo is giving odor-sensitive gorillas and orangutans whiffs of violet leaf, rose oil and other fragrances to ease their captivity.

DENVER Mias is a big, noisy ape that chomps melon rinds like potato chips and flings plastic buckets around when he's bored.

Yet one whiff of rose oil, and the bruising orangutan wilts, becoming as docile as a lamb. He pushes his nose through the cage and lets Rhonda Pietsch gently daub it with a bit of rosy scent, then inhales dreamily.


"They really look forward to this," said Pietsch, an animal keeper at the Denver Zoo. "Smell is such an important part of their lives."

The zoo, one of the largest in the country, is pioneering the use of aromatherapy on its animals, giving daily treatments to four orangutans and now to gorillas as well.

"As far as we know, no other zoo in the country practices aromatherapy," said Ana Bowie, a Denver Zoo spokeswoman. "It is being pursued as an enrichment activity to add a positive aspect to their daily lives. It could expand to other animals."

She said that orangutans and gorillas, close relatives of humans, were a natural starting point because they respond to many of the same things people do. Zoo residents with a less well developed sense of smell, like many birds, would be more challenging to work with.

The aroma idea came to Pietsch, a primate specialist, as she tried to boost the spirits of a young orangutan depressed over her mother's death. A book on aromatherapy set the keeper to wondering if it could benefit apes.

She began asking for donations of essential oils, and was contacted by Frances Fitzgerald Cleveland, an aromatherapist from Littleton, Colo., who specializes in treating pets. Cleveland, who usually deals in cats, dogs and horses, donated the oils and showed Pietsch how to use them. The zoo animals were offered a series of aromas. They ignored those they didn't like and grew boisterous when a smell stimulated them.

In time, Allie, the brooding orangutan, cheered up. Mias, who suffers from allergies, immediately chose eucalyptus and fennel, ideal for sneezing and watery eyes. The oils are rubbed on his forehead, nose and ears. Others picked scents like violet leaf, a natural analgesic.

"We are always looking to improve their living conditions and give them a better quality of life," Pietsch said. "We have seen a general improvement in their sense of well-being."

She pointed out that wild animals often chew medicinal plants when they feel sick.

"It's fascinating," Pietsch said. "You can put it on a blanket, and they will just smell it all day."

Many captive animals fixate on smells unavailable in a natural environment. At the Denver Zoo, the lions adore Jovan Musk Oil and go mad for the scent of elephant toenail clippings.

"Most animals are so into smell, they want it around all the time," Bowie said. "The Red River hogs love cheap perfume. Sometimes we put catnip in with the big cats."

Cleveland, the aromatherapist, believes she can decipher what ails an animal by testing its body hair and analyzing the energy it gives off. She then finds the oil to treat the problem.

"People are very skeptical of this," she said. "When I first started, my husband said: 'Get away from me, you weirdo.' And now he is totally behind me."

Cleveland has plenty of horse scents.

She carries them around in a bag: sandalwood, jasmine, carrot seed and rose oil, just the thing to boost the morale of a moody mare or lift the libido of a drooping stallion.

Earlier this week, she was standing in a freezing pasture gently waving bottles of fragrant oils beneath the considerable nose of Maynard, a Welsh cob.

When the shaggy horse sniffed the violet leaf oil, he bared his teeth, his nostrils flared wildly and he tried to suck it out of the bottle. Success. Cleveland rubbed the scent on his legs and massaged it into his black mane.

"He's very mouthy," Cleveland said, describing Maynard's penchant for chewing on everything. "I think he was probably weaned too quickly."

The horse instantly calmed. He stopped gumming a visitor's coat and seemed enraptured by the new smells engulfing his body.

Each oil has a different function: Sweet marjoram helps eliminate muscle pains; carrot seed boosts the immune system; vanilla soothes frazzled nerves.

Cleveland, who studied aromatherapy in the U.S. and England, trains people to treat their pets with oils. This creates a special bond between the two, and the animals "feel safer and more empowered," she said.

"The most important thing is that we allow the animals to choose what's best for them," she said. "We don't force anything on them."

Back at the zoo, Pietsch was trying to entice Allie into a treatment.

Mias, standing nearby, bellowed to get the keeper's attention. She offered him a whiff of grapefruit. He blew a raspberry. She tried basil. He sniffed it lovingly, looking a bit like the fictional Ferdinand, the bull that preferred flowers to the bullring.

"Males love to smell like flowers," Pietsch said.

When she's out of the office, the zookeeper tries the treatment on another primate.

"I get migraines," she explained. "It helps me relax."


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