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Animal Enrichment

Enrichment…. What’s it about?

animal-enrichmentby Ken Naugher, Zoo Deputy Director

Enrichment is technically defined as “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”. Enrichment in the zoo is achieved by adding items to, or changing a captive animal’s environment. The purpose of this is to modify that environment in an effort to stimulate behaviors resembling those for that species in a wild setting.

Although this process may sound simple, successful enrichment can be very difficult. There is a trial and error learning process for the zookeepers to determine what artificial items will elicit the behavior appropriate for that species. Compounding the problem is the fact that often it is not known what behaviors are exhibited by some captive species in the wild. Enrichment can be very rewarding for both animals and their keepers, it can also be very frustrating. Sometimes if an enrichment item or plan seems to be a failure, as animal care professionals we must console ourselves with the thought of even though an animal did not do what we had hoped, by providing them with a change in their usual routine this was enriching for them. Enrichment is intended to encourage behaviors that are appropriate for that species targeted, as well as to satisfy an animal’s physical and psychological needs.

Enrichment is a very new field that is constantly growing. Basically enrichment can be grouped into six categories, a category for each of the five senses touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound. In addition, when talking about animal enrichment, we must also include foraging behavior as an enrichment category. The most important aspect of enrichment is the fact that the item must be unexpected or novel and used on an unpredictable schedule. At the Montgomery Zoo we use hundreds of different enrichment items, the majority of which are listed as background on these pages. Next time you visit the zoo try to find the different types of enrichment in each enclosure, it will be enriching for you!

What is Enrichment?

Enrichment can simply be defined as an addition in order to improve. However, the more you think about this oversimplified statement the more complex it becomes because how do you know that the addition of an item or subject will actually improve another subject or situation? Enrichment is actually a science and it is based on trial and results. This is the essence of animal enrichment. Imagine yourself in your house you have no windows, your door is locked from the outside, no visitors come or go, you have no radio, TV or internet and you had to eat exactly the same thing every day but drink only water. You would be in need of some serious mental stimulation. If someone came along and installed windows in your house, now that would be enrichment, if someone came to the window and offered you some food that made you violently ill then that would not. Get the idea?

Here at the zoo our goal is to provide enrichment that will stimulate behavior in captivity that is typical of the same species in the wild. It is also our goal to provide enrichment resources to our animal collection that will result in increased physical and mental exercise. In order to choose an item to be used for enrichment we keep a database of tried enrichment items with results on specific animals. We also consult national animal enrichment databases developed by government agencies and other zoos. When an item is evaluated for use as enrichment it must go through an approval process with certain requirements. First safety for both people and animals is our primary concern and the following conditions must be addressed before using any enrichment item.

  • Can the animals get caught in it or become trapped by it?
  • Can it be used as a weapon?
  • Can an animal be cut or otherwise injured by it?
  • Can it fall on an animal?
  • Can the animal ingest the object or a piece of it?
  • Is any part of it toxic, including paint or epoxy?
  • Can it be choked on or cause asphyxiation or strangulation?
  • Can it become lodged in the digestive tract causing gut impaction?
  • Can it destroy an exhibit?
  • Can the manner of enrichment presentation promote aggression or harmful competition?
  • Has browse been determined to be non-toxic?
  • Does the enrichment cause abnormally high stress levels?

Second the item usually needs to be available at little or no cost, since most enrichment items are destroyed by the animals. If not then it needs to be reusable and easily disinfected. With this criteria in mind enrichment gets much more complicated and one must be able to predict the future somewhat in order to avoid possible disaster. Many enrichment items that are used to the zoo are ordinary household items that may be called “trash”, but one person’s trash may be another’s enrichment treasure. Some of these items are empty two liter soda bottles. These can be used to make frozen popsicles, rattles, shakers and even puzzles for the animals. Newspaper can be used to make paper mache’ figures and puzzles, old shoes and clothes are great for novel textures and smells, worn out bed sheets are great for play toys and shelters. These are just a few examples. Animal enrichment goes on each day unscheduled somewhere in the zoo, but on two special days each year the public gets to see special scheduled enrichment. These days are aimed at teaching the public about animal enrichment. Regular admission charges apply and zoo members are free.

Enrichment Day at the Montgomery Zoo

Two days a year are officially designated “Animal Enrichment Day” at the Montgomery Zoo. Although animal enrichment is ongoing every day of the year, these two official days are designed to allow zoo visitors to experience animal enrichment on a large scale. On these days most of the animals in the zoo receive enrichment on a published schedule and in very viewable methods for the public to appreciate. Animal enrichment is designed to stimulate curiosity, activity and often “wild type” behaviors in captive animals. It gives the animals unusual situations to think about, smell, taste, touch and hear. It also gives visitors the opportunity to see natural behavior in our zoo animals and stimulate visitor curiosity as well.

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