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What is environmental enrichment?
Animals in zoos don’t have the same opportunities for physical and mental stimulation that wild animals do, so zookeepers provide the animals with objects or changes to their environment that will stimulate the behaviors of healthy wild animals.
Enrichment gives animals something to think about, encourages exercise, and gives animals a degree of control of their environment by giving them choices. Basically, enrichment helps keep life interesting and challenging.
Imagine that you are sitting in your room, feeling a little bored, and you suddenly notice a strange new something hanging from your ceiling. Somethingbrightly colored, kind of round, with – could it be – a snickers bar inside?
Chances are you’d be figuring out a way to check out this new thing pretty fast. Could you stand on a desk or chair, do you need a ladder, could you knock it down? You’d be using your natural human problem solving skills to try to figure out what this new thing was and what to do about it. That is enrichment!
Types of enrichment
Zookeepers provide different types of enrichment to stimulate all of the senses and encourage a wide range of natural behaviors. Categories of enrichment include foods & feeding, sensory, novel objects, environmental as well as behavioral & social. Click on one of the following for more information.
Senses are extremely important to animals; it helps them to understand their environment and who is in it. Sensory enrichment includes visual, olfactory (smell), auditory (hearing), taste and tactile stimulation. Playing music or sounds of nature provides auditory stimulation that can both excite or calm an animal. Tactile stimulation might be a scratching post or a pile of snow! Providing new smells in an animal’s exhibit can encourage exploration and sometimes triggers territorial behaviors like rubbing and scent marking. A wide variety of scents are used for enrichment including spices, cooking extracts, perfumes and animal urine. The tigers love “Obsession” and “Charlie” perfumes. The tapirs, tree kangaroos, binturongs and gibbons go for banana extract!
Measuring our success by monitoring behavior
Planning effective enrichment starts with researching the natural history of the species. Knowing how wild animals navigate their environments, what foods they eat, what their primary senses are etc can aid in planning appropriate habitats and activities for our Zoo animals. Setting behavioral goals and planning how to achieve them is only the beginning.
Monitoring the behavior of our animals is part of the equation too. Knowing where and how the animals are spending their time can aid in planning new initiatives or in evaluating whether the activities we are doing are effective.
For example, behavioral data collected on our three brown bears can tell us how much time each bear spends fishing, climbing, or sleeping as well as how they interact with each other and their environment.
Animals have individual personalities and preferences. If enrichment is placed in the trees versus the pool, which bear is likely to get it? Enrichment planning and evaluation is aimed at meeting the needs of the species and the individual.