Enrichment Is Serious Fun

It's all in the opportunities

As part of animal welfare, enrichment has important goals and science behind it. Watching the animals, it also looks like a really great time!

BY Karen Worley

Complexity Is Key

Figuring out a puzzle to unlock a treasure of raisins. Climbing up swinging branches to a cozy hammock made of woven firehose. Head butting a big pile of dirt until it’s been vanquished. Discovering that there’s one rock that stays nice and toasty for lounging, even on a chilly day. Just what are these animals up to? They’re taking full advantage of enrichment.

Puzzling It Out

One category of enrichment is to provide animals with cognitive challenges: things to get them thinking. This might be learning how to use a puzzle to get a food treat, or figuring out how to negotiate a new arrangement of branches and platforms to reach a favorite sleeping spot. It might also be assessing a new item in the habitat, determining if it’s a threat or not, or how it might be used. Cognitive enrichment also includes positive reinforcement husbandry training: learning to follow the cues given by a keeper or trainer to present a desired behavior, then receive positive reinforcement, like a food treat or verbal praise, in return.

It’s a given that keepers provide zoo animals with most of their daily needs. The animals’ territory is protected from invaders and predators, they don’t have to seek out and fight for mates, and the basic resources are right there—water, food, shelter, and health care. Because they don’t spend the greatest portion of their time just trying to survive, they have more free time than their wild counterparts. With that in mind, enrichment programs are designed to provide zoo animals with engaging and meaningful activities, so they can use the characteristics and abilities of their species and control and manipulate their own environment within the zoo setting.

Food for Thought

Ways of finding, obtaining, processing, and eating food are one type of enrichment. In the wild, animals spend a large portion of their time on food, so it makes sense to provide similar opportunities for zoo animals. Whether an animal digs for its food, reaches up high to browse, forages for fruit or insects, or sniffs out a meal gives keepers ideas for different ways to present an animal with its meals. Animals will even leave the easy pickings and spend time working to obtain the harder-to-get food, apparently just because it’s more of a challenge!

Both Useful and Fun

There are a wide variety of objects and items that can be offered to animals for them to use and interact with as they see fit. They may use items as something new or interesting to explore, as a toy to play with, as something to make themselves comfortable, or in some other way—the important thing is, they get to decide.

The purpose of enrichment is to develop and enhance the complexity of an animal’s environment in a variety of ways that will encourage the use of natural behaviors. It’s behavior based—keepers determine the goal they want to achieve and the behavior they want to encourage, and then provide an opportunity for the experience. Giving animals physical and mental challenges, finding ways to stimulate exploration, thinking, and discovery, and providing them with opportunities to make their own choices and decisions are fundamental parts of enrichment. Because the idea is for an animal to “do what that species does” as much as possible, enrichment encompasses a wide range of items, exhibit designs, animal care techniques, and sensory stimuli.

Time to Explore

The features and structure of an exhibit habitat are a big part of enrichment. Finding new logs to scratch or rip apart, rocks to climb, or plants to chew are exciting discoveries. A sand, dirt, or mud pit to roll in, a pool to cool off and lounge in, branches that move and sway, and structures to climb provide varied activities, exercise, and ways to self maintain.

Senses and Sensibility

Scents and sensations are certainly enrichment. Animals are highly attuned to their senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch, and making use of them broadens their experiences. This is especially important for young animals, as they grow and learn. Unexpected sensational surprises, like snow or ice, can elicit quite a bit of excitement. Smelling the scent of another animal in used straw will spark interest—as will the scent of prey in the air as a carnivorous lizard tongue-flicks its way to the prize. Even sensations like temperature play a role—choosing to move into the shade where it’s cooler, or dozing in the sun to soak up the heat.

Social Life

Appropriate social groups are important in enrichment. For social species, they need to be part of a group; but others need their solitary time. Then there are also the interesting and varied experiences of living in mixed-species groups and encountering other types of animals. Who has what territory? What behavior is required in certain situations? Do we need to be on guard?

As part of San Diego Zoo Global’s comprehensive animal welfare program, the animal care teams are committed to providing innovative, creative, and relevant enrichment that is integrated into every aspect of caring for the animals at the Zoo and Safari Park. The goal is to promote well-being through physical activity, foraging and exploration, cognitive challenges, and social contact that is appropriate for the species.

Giving the animals opportunities to make their own choices and control their environment is an important aspect of enrichment. Hang together with the herd? Browse on your own for a while? Lounge in the shade, or go for a gallop to the next grassy hillside? As much as possible, it should be their decision.

Look for Clues

What does all of this look like in practice? You’ve probably seen it many times during your visits to the Zoo and Safari Park. You probably recognized it as enrichment when you saw the big bag stuffed with hay that the young gorillas were tossing around, or the ice block with apples and carrots frozen in it that the grizzly bears were licking and pawing.

But you may not have called it out when you saw that the hamadryas baboons had a variety of different levels of rocks to sit on in order to maintain their natural social hierarchy. Or that the sika deer herd had a choice of grazing on the hillside, wallowing in the pond, or gathering in the shade under the trees, and could choose what they wanted to do. More and more, enrichment includes aspects of animal care that seem like standard procedures. And that’s a good thing—it is all an integrated part of zoo animal care and welfare.