When you visit an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facility, you’ll often hear the term “enrichment” being used. Sometimes the term is preceded by the words “behavioral” or “animal” or “environmental,” and it typically refers to a novel object or toy that’s been placed in the exhibit. But what exactly is enrichment, and why is it important?
Enrichment is a vital part of animal care and has been for decades. It’s a way of encouraging animals to use their senses and natural instincts so that they act in species-specific ways. Enrichment can encourage mental and physical exercise or provide animals with something new to explore.
Keepers can add stimulation to their charges’ environments by using scents, sounds, or items, and by making other changes to habitats. This might mean placing a large barrel in the polar bears’ exhibit, or putting slow-feeding conveyer belts to the pygmy hippos’ enclosure. (All of these items are vetted to make sure they’re safe for the animals, of course.) It might also mean hanging the giraffe’s food up higher so they have to use their long tongues in natural ways to reach it, rearranging the elements inside a habitat, or creating multi-species exhibits where compatible species can coexist.
However, zoos are constantly working to improve animal welfare—and today, simply putting new things into an animal’s enclosure is only the beginning. The science (and art) of enriching animals’ lives with “extras” has evolved into a process that’s more sophisticated and more integrated into the daily care regimen, focusing first on the animal’s experience and outputs (i.e., how they feel and what they’re doing). The practice, then, of providing enrichment doesn’t necessarily change, but the thought behind it has moved from, “What item do I give the animals today?” to “What behavior should I promote today?”
Allison Kao, the zoo’s manager of behavioral husbandry and enrichment, explains. “We focus on goal-based enrichment: breaking down what animals do and what they’re adapted to do in the wild,” she says. “For example, with African lions, we might look at what specific behaviors they do in order to hunt. They need to track down their prey, stalk them, coordinate with other lions, and then chase, catch and bring down their targets. It’s a series of actions together, all encompassed in the hunting process. Instead of just saying we want a lion to hunt, we challenge our keepers to elicit that full string of behavior of what the animals do.”
Keepers consider the kinds of adaptations that are needed to complete the various behaviors involved and then look at what kinds of positive, measurable outcomes they want from successfully eliciting these behaviors. Finally, they figure out how to get the animal to do the behaviors. It’s an “animal-first” approach that also amounts to a cultural change within AZA zoos.
Building Lincoln Park Zoo’s more holistic strategy also aims to replicate not just the activities animals do in the wild, but how much time they spend doing it. If an animal spends half a day foraging for food in its native environment, keepers might try to increase the time an animal in human care uses to search for its food. It’s certainly easier to just drop a bucket of food into an enclosure, but that would only meet an individual’s most basic needs.
To that end, the focus is more on creative solutions that challenge animals’ natural physical and cognitive abilities. Every keeper here is assigned to a specific species, and they set goals for their species based on its natural history and behaviors. This process asks keepers to be more mindful of creating meaningful encounters for the animals in their care during their entire life cycle—and to move beyond just providing objects.
“We’re shifting toward changing the environment here or there instead of only using items,” Kao says.
Now, in addition to physical items purchased by Wish List supporters or created by the zoo’s dedicated volunteers, the zoo continues to make changes to the animals’ habitats for optimal engagement —but progress now comes as a result of thinking a bit outside the box. Under Kao’s leadership, the shorebirds at McCormick Bird House are beginning to experience different water levels in their pools, to simulate the flooding and receding of tides. Meanwhile, electric fans are being introduced to other exhibits to provide the sensation of wind. Heat lamps, placed into some bird habitats, have also encouraged them to sun themselves by spreading their wings out, something they hadn’t been observed doing before.
The newer approach is also a way of making sure enrichment isn’t thought of as something that goes above and beyond regular care. “It’s something we do a part of the regular routine. We’re just enhancing how we care for them, to give them more opportunity to do their natural behaviors,” Kao says. “Everyone agrees enrichment improves welfare. I think we’re all trying to push each other to do better.”