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Our last keeper talk was all about enrichment!
What is enrichment?
Enrichment is just what it sounds like – something that enriches an environment. In animal care, it’s providing animals stimulus to try to replicate natural behaviors.
Do all animals get enrichment on a regular basis?
Yes! All of our animals are on some form of enrichment rotation. It’s species-specific, so there are lots of things to consider: natural behaviors, species behaviors, and how we can replicate it. So each individual animal receives enrichment at different frequencies.
How do we know what material is safe for animals?
This is something that is being studied more and more in zoological facilities like ours. We want to be creative with the enrichment that we create, but of course safety is our first priority. If an animal has only been given boomer balls its whole life, it’s probably getting bored with boomer balls – so maybe we try something with fire hose or cardboard or something else. A lot of these decisions rely on us knowing the animal and the species. Anytime someone proposes a new enrichment item, we have a procedure to monitor for safety – we have a discussion about what could go wrong and what could go right. Even for things we know are safe, every time we remove that enrichment from the environment, we check the enrichment again to make sure the animal hasn’t done anything to it that could make it unsafe. Safety is a constant with enrichment.
What things should definitely NOT be used for enrichment?
No sharp objects. Anything that could cause entanglement. So instead of hanging something from a chain, we’ll cover that chain with PVC pipe so the animal can’t get caught in it. For smaller animals we may use twine or rope, but we’ll do the same thing and cover it so they can’t get tangled up in it. If we know a specific animal tends to eat everything, we’ll make sure we don’t provide it with an ingestible object. If something has to be secured it all depends on which animal we give it to, which determines how tightly we secure it down. There’s not any stand out item that we would never use, it all falls back on us understanding each animal and how they interact with their environment as well as how easy or difficult it is to get an item away from an animal if we have to.
What kind of enrichment crosses species and which are species-specific?
We have a few general categories of enrichment that crosses all species. One is olfactory enrichment, which is scent. One is tactile enrichment, where we provide them with something new for them to feel in their environment. Food enrichment, behavioral enrichment, these will cross species. For species-specific enrichment, you can think of it like how you know the difference between a cat and a dog. Canid behavior is more olfactory, or scent-based, so we’ll provide them with things that they can hunt down or sniff out. Cats, on the other hand, are maybe more destructive or elusive. Knowing each species or individual is so important so we can choose which things will be most enriching for them.
Should we provide the same enrichment the Center’s residents get to our pets at home?
Maybe not exactly the same, I’m not sure how many people can put a 150 lb boomer ball in their house. But yes, your animals at home want to be enriched. And whether or not you realize it, you’re probably enriching them every day. So even if you choose a different perfume or deodorant, that’s providing them with olfactory enrichment. My dogs at home never get fed out of a bowl, because bowls are boring. I use puzzle feeders or cardboard boxes – all sorts of things to make sure they’re mentally stimulated. If you’ve had a really hard day at work and just want to lie on your couch, providing brain stimulus is really taxing for animals, in a good way. Anytime they have to use their mind is really exciting or them, and again it falls under that natural behavior pattern that we like. So for your cats and dogs at home, if you change toys – say you have 20 toys out, take away 10 and rotate them. Instead of buying new toys every month, your dog is now thinking you’re the greatest person ever, because now you’ve given them 10 new toys. Spread it out any way you want. But yes, every pet loves enrichment!
Can enrichment overstimulate? How do we know?
Overstimulation can definitely happen. Animal senses are much more acute than ours. Again, a canine like a wolf or a singing dog, is gonna have a much better sense of smell than we do. So if we’re doing olfactory enrichment for them that day, instead of spraying something five times, or putting a whole bunch of scented oil on something, we’ll just use the teeniest little dab. And even then we’ll still dilute it, because we know that their sense of smell is so powerful. Similarly, if you put a lot of new stuff in an environment, or change a lot at once, instead of it creating a nice behavioral flexibility and fun, it can scare them or be overwhelming, and they won’t know what’s safe in an environment anymore. Again, knowing how an animal is overstimulated comes from knowing your animal.
If an animal is overstimulated, you may see drooling or avoiding an area. With scent enrichment, for us it may smell fine but when you present it to the animal, you may see them approach it and give a little “Whoo, I can smell that already and don’t want to be a part of that!” Sometimes if there’s a lot going on and they get a little nervous, hypersalivation, or drooling, is one of the first things that a lot of animals do. Also, pacing. If they feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing with their body but the stimulation makes them feel like they should be doing something, that’s where you see a lot of pace behaviors, which is a coping mechanism.
How do we assess if enrichment is successful?
We don’t enrich animals just to say that we enriched them. You don’t give an animal a toy just because it was on a checklist. We’re really looking for those behaviors. So there’s a huge variety of ways that different facilities evaluate their enrichment. We here at the Center use a really simple system – it’s just plus, zero, minus. Plus means that we have observed a lot of immediate interaction. Zero means that maybe we didn’t see it, but let’s say we put a box one place and the next day it’s been moved – that means there was some interaction. And a minus means that nothing happened. Plus doesn’t mean “happy” and minus doesn’t mean “sad,” it’s more “something happened” versus “nothing happened.” So even an animal having a negative reaction to an enrichment would be a plus sign, because that’s an immediate response. The assessment all comes down to the keeper observing the interaction.
Christy knows what Matthai likes [as enrichment], but what does Casper the Fox like?
Casper doesn’t like much. I’ve tried with that fox a lot of things that most foxes like! The thing this season that makes his eyes go “heart emoji” is deer tail. With the fur still on it! He’ll carry it around, throw it up in the air, he’ll cache it, bring it back out, bury it somewhere else, he’ll roll around on it, and eventually eat it.
How do we know what is actually enriching versus what we think “ought” to be enriching?
It comes down to the observations of whether or not an animal actually interacts with it or only acknowledges its existence. So, if I went and put this [stuffed animal] in an environment and an animal just walks over, sniffs it, and pees on it, that’d be a zero sign because that’s not really a lot of interaction, that’s just sort of acknowledging that this weird thing showed up that they may or may not like, and they just claimed it as “this is okay and I’m not afraid of it so I’m gonna pee on it.” But if I put it in an exhibit and an animal goes in and really tears it up, throws it around, moves its location – that’s a real interaction there. That’s like the animal saying “this is an item that’s in here for me to do something to.” Sometimes it’s hard because you might not see that as the initial reaction, maybe they’d rather do that behavior when no one is watching. Especially here at the Center because so many of our animals have been so well socialized, that when there’s a human around, especially a human that they like, they might find you more enriching than the item you provided. So really making sure that your observations are done in an appropriate amount of time is important – so maybe don’t just wait 15 minutes, wait a whole 24 hours. But each enrichment item will have a different duration in which we would expect to see something.
What is the funniest thing that you’ve ever caught an animal doing [with enrichment]?
I don’t know if I can pick one! I love frustrating animals with enrichment. Frustration is one of the most important things you can do for an animal in human care, because it helps those coping mechanisms. Finding a balance between an animal wanting to rip something apart and getting actually stressed out is my favorite little sweet spot to find. At a previous facility, I gave a drinker bottle to squirrel monkeys but I put fruit in the inside as well, and they could not figure out how to get inside of that thing and that was really fun to watch. And then when they started drinking it and realized that the water was flavored, it became the most fun thing ever for them. Here, any animal with bubbles is great. I blew bubbles for the lemurs the other day and it was really cute. Wonder with her one little arm just kept trying to very cautiously touch it. It would pop and she’d get a little scared and run away, but then come right back to keep playing. Bubbles are always fun. They even make catnip bubbles!
Do all good facilities provide enrichment?
Yeah! They should! Enrichment is considered a part of welfare. You could have the most amazing home that you’ve ever had – you could have a ton of gaming systems, a movie theatre in your basement, whatever – but if you stay at home all the time with that same stuff, or watch the same movie over and over again, you’re gonna get bored eventually. You’re gonna wanna change to a different movie every now and then. So we do the same thing, just for different species. For increasing welfare in animals, that’s really important. And it’s just fun! It’s one of the most fun parts of being a zookeeper – finding these creative outlets. Like, “Okay, they’ve gotten cardboard boxes and they like them, but now what can I do?” It’s like what we talked about in the last keeper talk, where animal science meets psychology. It’s important to make sure animals are mentally stimulated as well as physically healthy. Another piece of enrichment that a lot of people don’t think about is training. Training in itself is very enriching. So being able to train an animal for veterinary procedures or target training or crating is also considered enriching.
We have an enrichment event coming up in January called Tree Toss! Do you wanna talk about that a little?
It’ll be my first Tree Toss! But I have given animals pine trees as enrichment before and they love it! They’re rough and they smell funny, so they provide some tactile enrichment as well as scent enrichment and environmental stimulus. I hear that it’s a lot of fun! And it’s something to do in winter. I like that our events don’t happen on the classic days that you’re used to zoological facilities having seasonal events. Everyone does “Boo at the Zoo” or something on Halloween, but no one else really does anything between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and we wait until after Christmas to do Tree Toss. Don’t worry, the animals are still being spoiled rotten on all of those holidays, but our events give people a good reason to get out of the house and see animals at different times. Especially in January if it’s been cold and gross but we have a good day where you want to get outside for a little while, I think it’ll be a lot of fun!