She warmed up to the big cats right away. Good thing, because Tory Young wound up spending whole days last year watching tigers and lions at the Toronto Zoo for her master’s thesis in landscape architecture.

Far from playing tourist, Young was studying the cats’ movements and microclimates in their enclosures for her study of thermal comfort and zoo exhibit design. Learning how animals use different parts of their homes through the diurnal play of sun and shade may help zookeepers keep their charges healthy and happy, she says.

Young defended her thesis — titled “Lions and Tigers in Zoos, Oh My!” — last month. Her work considers animals’ activities, energy budgets and landscape elements to suggest how zoos and landscape consultants might improve animal enclosures.

She’s been working with Prof. Robert Brown, Environmental Design and Rural Development, and Esther Finegan, an adjunct graduate faculty member in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

Brown studies human thermal comfort — how to use such climatic factors as temperature, wind, humidity, sunlight and shade in designing optimum spaces for people. Animals are a different prospect, but he’d been interested in extending his work, so when Young approached him about thesis topics, he suggested studying microclimate in zoo enclosures.

“Enclosures need to be designed so they create microclimates that animals find thermally comfortable,” says Brown. “Otherwise, it will affect the health and well-being of the animals.”

At an animal welfare conference on campus early last year, Young met Finegan, an animal nutritionist who had begun exploring thermoregulation in large animals. Through Finegan, the master’s student arranged to conduct her study at the Toronto Zoo.

Throughout August and September, Young monitored Siberian tigers and African lions for up to nine hours a day at the zoo. She recorded their movements and activities as well as microclimatic conditions in different parts of the enclosures. She also used an infrared camera to capture thermal images of the animals and their surroundings and to learn how the cats take in and release heat.

“I know what captive lions and tigers actually do all day,” she says.

Like people, the cats had individual preferences, some forsaking the shade to sunbathe even on the hottest days. But Young was surprised to find little difference between the Siberian and African natives in summertime conditions.

She says her work might help officials in zoos and wildlife parks plan functional and naturalistic enclosure designs and choose appropriate materials and structures.

“Her findings will be a major step forward,” says Finegan. “There aren’t many people in North America who’ve come up with guidelines to help people in designing zoo enclosures.”

Adds Brown: “Many zoos consider the thermal comfort of their animals in their design and management, but Tory’s work provides a new perspective and takes it to another level. A tree that looks like an acacia might function very well in the African landscape, but the climate in Toronto is quite different. Although the tree might look like it’s doing the right thing for the lions, it might not provide the same function at all.”

Young studied animal ecology at Simon Fraser University. She had planned to become a zookeeper, but jobs were scarce when she graduated in 2004. Under a volunteer stint with Global Vision International, she spent three months on South African game reserves, tracking large predators, including lions, leopards and hyenas.

She recalls thinking: “This is amazing. This is what I need to do.”

Later she monitored beaches in Georgia for nesting sea turtles for the Georgia Sea Turtle Centre, a rehabilitation, research and education facility.

Last year’s studies in Toronto afforded a chance to observe another species besides the big cats. She says zoo visitors are often impatient and expect the animals to “perform.”

“I learned a lot about animals, but I also learned a lot about people. You feel like you need to educate them. People don’t read signs.”