The animals at Lincoln Park Zoo receive enrichment that challenges their natural instincts and engages their senses. Effective enrichment comes in many forms and varies from species to species—and even between individuals—but always helps to create complex and dynamic environments that encourage species-specific behaviors.
What Counts as Enrichment?
Nearly anything, so long as it stimulates the animal’s body and mind in a natural way. Wild aardvarks, for example, spend much of their time searching for food, so Lincoln Park Zoo’s Animal Care staff installed timed feeders that distribute food periodically and unpredictably throughout the aardvark habitat—an enriching experience for natural foragers. For other species, enrichment can range from new scents and sounds to puzzle containers filled with food.
Creating new enrichment concepts requires a blend of creativity and science, and nothing is ever introduced into an animal’s habitat unless multiple Animal Care experts have approved both its value and safety.
Set a Goal
First, Animal Care staff researches each species to better understand their behavior in the wild, primarily focusing on special adaptations, feeding styles, and how they spend their time. Then, they develop ways to encourage many of those same behaviors at the zoo—but only when engaging in a specific activity would benefit animal welfare.
All items and concepts designed to promote natural behaviors go through a strict vetting process before being introduced to an animal’s habitat. Every idea is ultimately reviewed by multiple experts, including a veterinarian and an enrichment manager, to ensure the safety of each individual animal.
The process doesn’t end when an animal receives enrichment. Animal Care staff must constantly evaluate each individual’s response to new enrichment to assess its effectiveness—whether or not the new habitat element stimulates the desired behavior from the animal.
Animal Care staff determines effectiveness through two primary methods: observing how the animal interacts with enrichment in the moment and tracking their actions over a longer period of time using ZooMonitor, a behavioral monitoring program developed at Lincoln Park Zoo. Using this program, volunteers, interns, animal keepers, and scientists record behavior on several species around the zoo throughout the day. This data provides the big picture necessary to understanding how each animal spends its day—before, during, and after receiving new enrichment.
Enrichment isn’t considered successful unless it stimulates the specific desired behavior. For example, if a polar bear simply falls asleep on top of a large barrel meant to encourage more swimming, Animal Care has to find a new way to elicit the appropriate behavior. The barrel, meanwhile, might remain in the habitat to help with sleeping.
If enrichment does immediately lead to the desired behavior, Animal Care’s job still isn’t done. Next up is determining how the animal’s overall behavioral profile is affected throughout the entire day over several weeks. Using ZooMonitor, staff can determine whether or not enrichment provides long-term benefits for the animal that extend beyond a single point in time.
The Wish List
The Wish List is full of one-of-a-kind items for zoo animals—including nutritious snacks and enrichment items to keep them active and healthy.