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E: Environment, Enrichment,
Education, & Endangered Species

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Enrichment 101

Welcome to E! This section is dedicated to the environment, enrichment, and education about animals and related topics. This page contains an introduction to enrichment.

Enrichment 101

Enrichment is a term that many people get confused over. To understand what it is, and what types of enrichment can be used on captive animals, is what this article will address. So that you better understand what will be reviewed, here are two definitions that relate to this discussion and answer the question: What is enrichment?

en-rich-ment n: the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources.

en-rich vb: refers to the act of making something better (richer) by the addition or increase of some desirable quality, attribute, or ingredient.

Captive animals have an abundance of time on their hands (paws/hooves/wings/scales) and will often show stereotypic or abnormal behavior patterns if they cannot channel their energy and intellect in constructive ways. Most of the normal time spent in survival mode has been eliminated by being placed or reared in captivity. The animal has more time to play and lounge.

For example, an animal in the wild, will spend much of their time in the search of food, water, shelter, and survival. Competition with other animals, escape from predators, and a variety of other activities like rearing and protecting young, searching for a mate, social activities, or protecting territory will take up the active hours in constructive energy expenditure.

In captivity, food and water is supplied, territory is already delineated, social groupings are usually fairly stable and structured, there are usually no predators to avoid, and mates are selected for them. With all the extra free time, the animal will have a need for new and entertaining or challenging activities. That is where the role of enrichment comes in.

There are many forms of enrichment. Each type has a different application and can be as varied as the animals it can be presented to. Some forms of enrichment are simple, while others can get quite complicated and expensive. Here are some of the basic types for a general outline.

This is one of the more important considerations of an animal in captivity. It is also a good challenge for facilities open to the public, since people want to view the animals and sometimes the animals would do better without the close proximity to strange humans. Furniture, perches, swings, den boxes, and other items would be included in this category.

Unfortunately exhibit design is still one of the most overlooked areas of enrichment. Although mixed species exhibits and designs are now trying to address this on some level, it has to encompass more. Often, window dressing cannot undue the ill effect budget cuts and space constraints have overall. Usually the important little nuances that were eliminated could have been of benefit to both the animals and keepers.

Good exhibit design will provide the basic needs for the animals. Some considerations are the physical placement of the exhibit, useable space versus total space, ease of changing platforms, tiers, or furniture, having denning areas, escape zones, isolation regions, etc. Feeders, water dispensers, and drainage in exhibit design still present challenges. Other concerns are the ease of access, maintenance, and capture or restraint.

A general example of an animal consideration would be that some animals would need to have height space and tiers for activity (arboreal animals) rather than a lot of floor space. A secretive animal will do less well in a high traffic or highly visible space (and suffer from stress) while other animals will love the activity and thrive!    Back To Top

Proper social groupings are another important need. For many years herd animals, like the elephant, were housed alone. Ideally social animals will be housed in social groupings as they would be found outside of captivity. Space constraints and management challenges prevent some of this from being done.

In other cases, more solitary animals (or those that we think are) can sometimes benefit from having a social interlude with another member of their species or with the same species adjacent to their enclosure. Proper introductions and compatibility would be important in this case.    Back To Top

Feeding time is very pleasurable and passes much to quickly. Creative feeding strategies that encourage foraging behavior are ideal. Interval feeding, quantity, texture, fresh, frozen, live, and challenges to obtain the food are some ways to implement this technique. Browse can be varied in types and textures and can overlap into the novel object category too!

Sometimes people place too much emphasis on this strategy and face the risk of nutritional imbalances or other challenges --such as dominant animals obtaining all the preferred items. Proper planning and research can help in that area.

Many people get offended when facilities feed live food or carcasses. Diet variation and instinctive hunting can be useful, especially if the reintroduction back into the wild is an option. Diet variation can be one of the strongest variables used, unfortunately for the animal, due to storage space, staff time constraints, and budgeting concerns, most facilities have pretty predictable routines and food menus.   Back To Top

Novel objects, or creative use of those objects, can be something that occupies an animal for hours. These can be natural objects or man-made items. They are best not used as food dispensers, since they can lose their value as something other than just a food dish.

Bowling balls, special truck tires, puzzles, Kong toys, browse, large and small branches, wood wool, flowers, insects, feathers, and a variety of other nontoxic or safety tested objects can provide fun for the animal.

Wood wool, hay, or similar items should be kept clean to prevent bacterial growth or improper ingestion. Similarly, ropes, chains or other items should be secured so that the animals cannot get their limbs, or heads stuck by accident. Often, protective and stable sheaths can assist in preventing some of those problems with hanging objects.

Novel items should be removed and replaced with other types of objects frequently to avoid habituation and boredom. Just like kids, new toys are needed to keep the interest level high and the energy channeled into the play activity with the objects.    Back To Top

Creativity here can be challenging. Anything that attracts the eye, such as introduction of different colors or shades, objects triggered by wind movement, viewing animals in other exhibits, and use of light beams, video tapes, mirrors (unbreakable metal), or other creative attempts fit here. Some facilities have used television to entertain non-human primates.

Having people who visit, and staff members wearing different hats, clothing, sunglasses, gloves, and a variety of items or patterns can also interest and entertain your animals. Further benefits from this strategy is that it will also desensitize them to reacting adversely to those variations.    Back To Top

For animals who are very scent oriented this can get interesting! Scents used can vary from cooking spices, perfumed oil, lotion, hunting scents, or by bringing in items from other animal exhibits. Be sure these items have been given clearance by veterinary staff, since you will not want to introduce disease or parasites. Onions, garlic, and other strong smelling food items can be used here too.    Back To Top

Having other animals within vocal range can also be enriching or alarming. Consider using audio tapes of animals, insects, or other noises and remember that they can be beneficial to some animals and startling to others. Some easily obtainable sound combinations are jungle noises, soothing music, or other animal sounds.

If you can introduce other types of sound tapes they could be interesting too. Some variations would be appropriate for certain facilities but not for others, especially if you have a theme for the public and are trying to create a specific atmosphere.

Don't forget to talk with your animals! They depend on you for feedback and will enjoy the verbal interaction. Often, they will attempt to communicate with you verbally and by coming up to see you. Tone is important, so pay attention to your voice. Watch your tone and intensity level when you are having difficulty with the animal in your care to make sure you are not heightening the challenge.    Back To Top

Textures of introduced items (novel objects) can be varied. Paper bags, burlap, cardboard, bark, or different foliage are some ideas. Food textures can be varied too. Remember soft, hard, smooth, rough, heavy, light, cold, warm (not too hot!) and geometric shapes all can add to the texture experience! Caution needs to be used with items that could be ingested, when in doubt do some research first.

Don't forget human touch. It is important to an animal who is bonded with you, although all will not be safe to do this with. Also, depending on your facility, and the protocol to be followed, this may not be allowed or even possible.

Mutual grooming, scratching, rubbing, etc., can be done at many places if you handle it carefully. Depending on the facility, this can be an important part of your work since it allows you to get hands-on feedback from the animal. Coat condition, weight loss, tumors, parasites, cuts, or injuries can be found this way. Basically, some animals enjoy tactile more than others so you will have to use good judgment.    Back To Top

One of my favorites, but not acceptable at all facilities. Training can greatly increase the intellectual focus of an animal. Strategies should be planned out to allow for variations in animal and handler skills. Plan a bunch of things, from husbandry care to shaping behaviors, to occupy and challenge the animal's mind. Ambassador animals have the best of all worlds by being able to experience new locations, people, scents, and situations.

When working on training/handling plan out at least twenty or more behaviors to train --in advance. Be sure to include denning behavior or crate training to help with on and off exhibit woes. Don't forget to ask for variations of the behavior, once it is completely trained.

For instance, try asking for the behavior in other locations, within or outside the exhibit; also vary the areas performed such as on solid land, water work, or arboreal work. Change can be stimulating for the animal so try the beach, grass, and other substrates or environments that you can access safely and easily. Get creative and combine behaviors or set your goals for small nuances of finely tuned behaviors. It will be good for you and the animal mentally!    Back To Top

Hopefully the animals will be being reared by their own mothers. If not, use responsive care techniques and research what will benefit the animal down the road. Search the literature to see if there are any developmental periods you can take advantage of. Expose the critters in your care to a variety of toys and experiences to help stimulate and build confidence.

Other important needs in this area include buddies (conspecifics) to grow up with, surrogate mothers to cling to, and rules of etiquette with people (and animals) that are started young. These strategies will prevent problems with caretakers and conspecifics later. See the ABC'S section for more on hand-rearing from a behavior perspective.    Back To Top

Hope this has given you an idea of what enrichment is and what it is about. Keep checking the blog for new articles.

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About the columnist: Since 1978 Diana L. Guerrero has worked professionally with both wild and domestic animals. Guerrero has been affiliated with, and certified by, a variety of animal programs in the USA and Europe. Based in California, she writes, consults, and speaks. Information on her animal career programs, training courses, and her books {What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality (SkyLight Paths, 2003), Blessing of the Animals (Sterling, 2007), Help! My Pet is Driving Me Crazy (Guerrero Ink, 2007), Animal Disaster Preparedness for Pet Owners & Pet Professionals (Guerrero Ink, 2007)} can be found in this web site and in the shop. Questions for Guerrero should be submitted via the blog comments or membership forum.


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