The Importance of Enrichment - Mary Meixner, OBS Intern
Imagine that you live in a one-room house. Blank walls, concrete floor, no fixtures or furniture. There might be one of those fluorescent ceiling lights so you can see your surroundings, but other than that, the room is a blank slate. Now, you’re living here, so this is where you spend all day and all night. Wouldn’t that be boring? Now, imagine that one day, someone came in and placed a giant colored ball in your room. Maybe the next day your visitor took the ball away and brought you a puzzle, and then the day after that, you were given one of those small plastic jungle gym sets. Chances are, you would play with the ball, put the puzzle together, and climb all over the jungle gym. Without even knowing it, you were being enriched.
In zoos and wildlife sanctuaries all over the world, animals are kept in captivity for conservation, education, rehabilitation, etc. Living conditions for these animals have improved greatly since the first zoos. While zoos of the past kept animals in what was essentially a concrete jail cell, zoos of today are much more conscious of captive animals’ natural history and needs. One of these needs is enrichment. In the wild, an animal is constantly reacting to and acting upon its environment, or habitat. If they are not sleeping, they are hunting, problem-solving, foraging, fighting, interacting, staying alert for prey/predators, keeping tabs on environmental conditions, to name a few. These animals are wired to do this, so when an animal is housed in captivity where it doesn’t have to rely on any of these survival skills, problems can develop if enrichment is not part of their routine. For example, a polar bear is a nomadic creature, which means that it doesn’t have a permanent home, so it spends hours upon hours of its day just walking, moving from place to place to find food. A polar bear in a zoo doesn’t have the infinite Arctic space to be a nomad, and if enrichment is not provided, it may spend hours of its day pacing back and forth with no purpose. This is called a stereotypical behavior, and is an indicator of poor welfare.
So, what is enrichment? The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), which accredits zoos and sanctuaries across the United States, defines enrichment as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history.” Simply put, it is a process of mimicking the stimulating and challenging environment that an animal would experience in the wild, enabling the animal to problem-solve and utilize its mental capacity. This helps prevent the boredom that can lead to undesirable behaviors.
Enrichment involves mimicking the environment an animal would experience in the wild.
Here, a lion rips into a fake zebra made out of paper-mache.
(Photo from vcebiology.edublogs.org)
There are several different types of enrichment. For example, an animal’s physical environment may be changed. Here at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary, we will add new perches to a bird’s mew or change the way the logs are arranged. Anything that gives the bird a “new view” of it’s surroundings. Enrichment could also be through human interaction and training. Diesel, our Red-Shouldered Hawk, has been in training to do free flights. After learning to fly from perch to perch to the glove, now he might free-fly into a nearby tree and then come back to the glove for a food reward when he hears our whistle. This training keeps Diesel’s brain stimulated, and it’s good exercise. Another type of enrichment is through scents. This type of enrichment is very effective with large carnivores, like bears and big cats, who rely heavily on their sense of smell. It won’t work for every bird, as most birds do not have a good sense of smell. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, have an excellent sense of smell that enables them to find carrion, so this type of enrichment may work well. Social enrichment is another type, in which an animal has the opportunity to interact with members of its own species or with another species. Finally, creating diet puzzles, such as putting food items in a paper towel tube and folding up the ends, allows an animal to work for its food the way it would have to in the wild. A diet puzzle could also be something as simple as making ice cubes with food inside.
An example of a diet puzzle--freezing food in GIANT ice blocks.
(hoto from www.oregonzoo.org)
At the Ohio Bird Sanctuary, our birds are no different from other captive animals in that they need enrichment. Enrichment is especially important for our American Crows, Cece and Colee. Crows are very intelligent birds, possessing stellar problem-solving skills and the ability to mimic. In busy cities, crows have learned to drop shelled nuts on the street to be cracked by the tires of passing cars. As if that wasn’t enough, they have also learned to wait for the all-clear from traffic signals to enter the street and get the cracked nuts. Crows are smart, and our crows are no exception. If you ever happen to be at the Sanctuary during feeding time, you may notice that we will put part of the crows’ diet, such as an egg, in a cardboard toilet paper tube and fold up the ends. This simple enrichment activity engages the crows’ problem-solving skills. Colee has even learned that if he dunks the food package in his water bowl, the cardboard softens and he can easily extract the egg. For my internship project, I have decided to compile an enrichment guide, specifically for our crows, but including enrichment ideas for our birds of prey as well. When designing enrichment, you need to consider the animal’s behavior, personality, habitat, natural history, and safety. This will ensure that the enrichment is relevant and safe for the animal.
Training is another form of enrichment. Here, Diesel our Red-Shouldered Hawk free-flies.
(Photo from www.ohiobirdsanctuary.com)
Overall, enrichment is about creating a better life for animals in captivity. Animals were not meant to live in captivity, and it is a beautiful thing to see them thriving in the wild. However, due to human interference, many animals are forced to reside in captive environments, whether it is because of an injury or because of endangered status, or for other reasons. Since most of the time it is our fault, we must take on the responsibility of giving these animals the best quality of life possible in captivity. Enrichment is one way we can fulfill this duty.