The Stimulating Science of Animal Enrichment

If you have ever been to a zoo, rehabilitation center, or any other place where wild animals are kept, you have possibly seen animal enrichment taking place and not even realized it. For example, perhaps you have seen the animals interacting with interesting items, playing in pools of water on a hot day, or even being trained to do special tricks; these are all examples of animal enrichment. Believe it or not, there is a careful and scientific process that goes on behind the scenes to deliver the right type of enrichment to each animal in captivity.

What is animal enrichment?

Animal enrichment, also known as environmental or behavioral enrichment, is the process of providing captive animals with some form of stimulation in order to encourage natural behaviors, which helps to improve or maintain their physical and mental health. In a very simple sense, it is giving the animals something to do so that they are happy and healthy. Enrichment can be provided for animals in zoos or rehabilitation centers, laboratories, farms, and even for companion animals, like your cat.

The type of enrichment given to animals should depend on what natural behaviors they normally exhibit in the wild. The intent is to encourage natural behaviors, stimulate curiosity, and to give animals choice and control in their environment Though it may seem simple, giving animals helpful and successful enrichment requires careful research and careful consideration.

What types of animal enrichment are there?

Ideally, animals are given multiple types of enrichment, and the form of enrichment is changed periodically to continue giving them new stimulation. Though they are not mutually exclusive, enrichment can be broken up into five different categories:

    • Social
    • Cognitive
    • Physical habitat
    • Sensory
    • Food

Social enrichment is anything that includes social interactions, often with other live animals. It can include living with conspecifics, which means more of the same species, or other species of animals that can live together peacefully. It could also include people, or even stuffed animals and mirrors to simulate company, or a rival.

Cognitive enrichment is anything new or challenging that will make the animal think, be challenged, or become curious. For example, puzzle feeders, where they must solve a puzzle to obtain their food, brand new food they have never tried, new smells, or even training sessions.

Enrichment of physical habitat is exactly how it sounds: something is added to make their habitat more dynamic, comfortable, and/or fun. Perches for flying and climbing animals, places to hide for insects or prey animals, new dirt for digging or rolling in, etc., are all part of this category.

Sensory enrichment is anything that stimulates an animal’s senses, such as scratch boards, new smells, moving toys, or different sounds.

Food enrichment involves either new food items, or different ways for the animals to get their food. Food can be presented in a way that encourages foraging behavior, which is the way in which an animal searches for and obtains its food, such as scattering food, putting it inside an item that must be broken open, or maybe even burying it.

What are the steps and considerations for good animal enrichment?

Though simple at first glance, enrichment efforts should be treated like a science, with planning, trial and error, and constant revisions. Second, it is important to stimulate natural behaviors , which you can read about further below.

Essentially, the process looks something like this:

Each program has a slightly different methodology for applying animal enrichment, but the important elements are that they are thought out, planned thoroughly, tested, evaluated, and adjusted accordingly. approaches the process with the acronym SPIDER, an enrichment model of six key steps:

SSetting goals: What natural behaviors should be encouraged?
PPlanning: How to encourage certain behaviors, safety concerns, what materials do we need?
IImplementation: Set a schedule and implement different enrichment types.
DDocumentation: Monitor and document the animals experiencing the enrichment.
EEvaluation: Does it work as planned? Is it safe?
RRe-adjustment: Adjust the implementation accordingly to try to get the best result for the animal.

Each step is applied to each new enrichment that will be introduced to an animal through this program. Though there are small differences, in general, this process will look similar in other programs as well.

Essentially, enrichment needs to be treated as a scientific process. By combining animal behavior studies with other enrichment research, and by testing new methods, we can find what types of enrichment are most effective, and we can find new types of enrichment to introduce in order to ensure the health and happiness of captive animals.

Why is animal enrichment so important?

For the animals

There are plenty of reasons that it is important for us to practice enrichment with captive animals and a wide range of research supports that animal enrichment is indeed beneficial and necessary. It is also important that we encourage natural behaviors in these animals when implementing enrichment programs.

First, if we are going to be keeping animals, it is only ethical to give them the best lives that we can, ensuring that they are stimulated, curious, and don’t become bored and restless. When we keep animals, in zoos for example, we often take away their ability to choose many things, and their need to work in order to survive, which can create an unhealthy level of boredom.

Second, enrichment ends up being crucial for animal’s physical health. Many forms of enrichment encourage physical movement and higher levels of activity, which helps the animals stay in better shape.

Third, the mental health of these animals also benefits greatly from enrichment. Wild animals spend much of their time active, and captive animals can suffer from having “too much free time” and not carrying out normal behaviors that they would in the wild. Giving these animals tasks that they would normally carry out in their natural habitat helps to increase mental health -encouraging natural behaviors that reduce stress and stereotypical pacing, and provide escape mechanisms (if they feel overwhelmed by guest presence or other potentially stressing factors).

Lastly, enrichment, especially when natural behaviors are encouraged, improves mating success, and ends up being crucial to reintroduction programs. Animals that will potentially be released back into the wild need to learn, or continue to practice, the behaviors they would in the wild, such as foraging or interacting in a social group Without these skills, the reintroduction will prove even more difficult than it already is. If you are curious about mating in zoos, check out our polar bear mating video!

For us

Of course, at the heart of animal enrichment is the mental and physical health of the animals, however, it is also great for the guests visiting zoos and rehabilitation centers. Seeing the animals happy, healthy, and active helps to improve guest experience. It also keeps people coming back, which in turn generates more income for the zoos. Said income can be turned into more investment for their enrichment program, or for other important zoo conservation/reintroduction programs. As well, stimulating natural behaviors is important for public education: if zoo animals are behaving more naturally they are better representatives of the species in a wild environment, which delivers more accurate education to the public and better promotes learning and species conservation.

Can animal enrichment be negative for the animals?

If not carried out properly, animal enrichment could be potentially negative for the animals for a few reasons.

First, there are potential safety concerns of adding foreign objects to an enclosure, so careful planning and monitoring is important.

For the optimal mental health of the animals, enrichment should aim to encourage more natural behaviors, and what works for one species would have very different results for another. You could imagine that, for example, adding more individuals to a zebra enclosure could be an excellent social enrichment for zebras, but introducing additional polar bears, who are generally solitary, could have negative and potentially dangerous competition results.

Finally, as London-based NGO Wild Welfare very importantly points out, enrichment is very necessary for happy and healthy animals, but it is not a substitute for substandard care of animals. If animals still have poor habitat conditions, diet, etc., enrichment is not a quick fix. An animal’s basic needs must be provided first and foremost, and attempted enrichment does not cover up poor quality care.

However, when enrichment is treated like the science that it is, for animals that are already well cared for, the result is healthier and happier animals, which is good for them, and even for us!

Who is using animal enrichment?

The great news is that enrichment is beginning to be the norm in zoos, rehabilitation centers, laboratories, veterinary clinics, and even in people’s homes with their pets. Additionally, the caretakers of these animals, and researchers worldwide, are working collectively to better our tools and understanding of this important practice. For a bit of a closer look at the process check out our case study, at the end of the article, with the NC Zoo!

What can we do to help improve animal enrichment?

So hopefully by now we have convinced you that enrichment is important, so how do we help to encourage and improve it?

You can start by visiting zoos and rehabilitation centers that have a clearly demonstrated enrichment program. Entrance fees help these institutions pay for more research and materials to continue and improve their current programs–and you get a nice day at the zoo! If you aren’t sure about your local zoo’s enrichment program, ask them!

Second, you can donate money, materials, or your time as a volunteer to an animal enrichment program near you. Some programs have additionally implemented programs of “repurposing for enrichment,” which repurposes old materials to use with their animals. This is excellent because repurposing not only allows for more variety of materials for the animals, but it reduces wastes, and can lower costs by almost 50% in some cases. For example, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland lists items online you can donate to repurpose for enrichment. You can check your local zoo’s web page, or contact them, to see what kind of items you could bring to aid in their enrichment programs.

Last, we can not forget about the importance of research for further improving our knowledge of enrichment. You can help by donating or collaborating with research programs, such as The Shape of Enrichment, which is a collaborative group for research on animal enrichment that shares and publishes research, and gives courses and workshops on enrichment.

Case Study: North Carolina Zoo, USA

The NC Zoo is working hard to ensure that their animals remain happy and healthy through their animal enrichment program. Watch this video for a closer look at some of their projects involving chimps, peregrine falcons, polar bears, and even Komodo dragons!

Learn More about Animal Enrichment

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Written by Kirstynn Joseph

Kirstynn graduated with a Bachelors in Ecology from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in 2018. She was born in Yukon Territory, and is currently living in Ecuador, where she is working on various projects and exploring as much as she can before she figures out the next big adventure. She is passionate about the outdoors, about nature and conservation, and of course, science! She loves writing, art and photography and strives to share the wonders of our big mysterious world with as many people as she can.

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