New View of Enrichment

Posted at 9:46 am June 17, 2010 by Kym Nelson

Red river hogs enjoy food pellets stuck to a toy with peanut butter.

Kym has been a carnivore keeper for eight years, but recently switched to caring for herbivores and is writing a series about her new experiences. Read her previous post, Picking One from the Herd.

Environmental enrichment is a term that zoo keepers are very familiar with. We want to add diversity to the animals’ environments so that they are mentally stimulated, and as I am sure you can imagine, this is one of the most important tasks a keeper has. It is, in my opinion, just as important as providing food, water, and shelter.

Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park have an Enrichment Committee, of which I have been a member since I started working at the Wild Animal Park. The goal of the committee is to promote and share enrichment ideas, organize workshops where staff and sometimes volunteers can make enrichment items, review requests for new items, and share the successes (and sometimes not-so-successful outcomes) of the enrichment provided. We are constantly searching for new and exciting ways to enrich the lives of the animals in our care. Think back to when you were a child: if you had just three toys, they wouldn’t be very interesting after a while. Luckily, we all had parents and holidays, which meant new toys were never very far away! The members of the Enrichment Committee reach out to keepers at other facilities, the pet industry, and even sometimes children’s toy stores to come up with fresh ideas.

There are a lot of factors to consider when offering a new enrichment item. First and foremost is safety: we want to be sure that what we are providing could not harm the animals in any way. Are there any parts that an animal’s foot or tooth could get stuck in? Could the animal eat the item, and if they did, would it be harmful? Could the animal break the item? We try to think of every possible way the animal could interact with the enrichment item and the consequences that would follow. Once the keeper decides that the item is suitable, we submit an enrichment approval form to the animal care supervisor, veterinarian, and nutritionist. If they have questions or concerns, these will be discussed at the Enrichment Committee meetings, and finally, the item will either be approved, modifications will be needed, or, in some cases, the request will be denied.

So it probably seems like I am well versed in the world of enrichment and that this is an established part of my job. So what is different now that I am working with herbivores on the Park’s West Run? Well, the second thing keepers have to consider when offering enrichment to the animals is how they are going to react to the item. After we have established that the item is safe, we have to ask a very important question: will the animal use it? A new toy would not be very interesting if you didn’t even touch it! Keepers look at the natural histories and behaviors of the animals in their care and try to solicit these behaviors with the enrichment items.

A lioness takes down colorful cardboard prey.

After working with carnivores for the past eight years, I have developed an understanding of their behavior patterns and their likes and dislikes. I am confident that when I introduce a new item, I can predict how the cat will interact with it. Being territorial, any item that causes an exploratory reaction is beneficial; this could be spraying different scents around the cats’ enclosure or introducing a new “furniture” item that the animal was not familiar with. Cats are predators, so enrichment items that bring out the chase- and-kill behaviors are usually very successful. The lifestyle of an ungulate is quite the opposite of this: they will usually live in groups and try to avoid being detected by predators. Play is not as common in deer as it is in tigers!

In order to come up with interesting ideas for enrichment items, I have had to learn a lot about the animals’ lifestyles and what behaviors are natural to them. Thanks to the help of the veteran keepers of hoofed animals, I have made quite a few discoveries. For example: male deer, antelope, and sheep spar with items such as hanging bamboo and plastic drums. This behavior is natural to them, since they would fight with other males for dominance and breeding rights. The deer and the small antelope spend a lot of time retrieving biscuits from a puzzle feeder or searching for them through piles of hay. I am sure you can see how this would relate to a natural foraging behavior. All of the animals are intrigued and curious when a mirror is hung on the fence, and the equids love to toss things around. I also tried some new items, such as cardboard animals, (cardboard boxes are decorated and connected together to look like animals), which I offered to the horses. They were very apprehensive at first, approaching slowly and then backing away quickly. Overnight, though, they must have mustered up some courage because the “animals” were in pieces in the morning!

These are just a few examples of the enrichment items we offer; our goal is to offer a new item to each animal each day. Not to say that we don’t reuse the same enrichment items and toys, but we try to move them around so the animals never get bored. If you are interested in helping with enrichment for the animals at the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park, please visit our Animal Care Wish List!

Kym Nelson is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.

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4 Responses to “New View of Enrichment”

  1. Cynthia Jewell of Florida says:

    Loved this article on enrichment! I definitely would love to see more. This is one reason why I would like to see more keeper talks on more of a variety of animals. For the animals I have as pets, I am constantly working on finding ways to enrich their lives

  2. LK Taylor says:

    So enjoy the keeper blogs.

  3. Tom says:

    Fantastic article and so good to know that there is an Enrichment Committe and that so much thought is given to the matter. Excellent work!

  4. kat Wilson says:

    Thanks Kym! Oh, and also, I don’t envy anyone who has to come up with new and exciting toys and such for all types of animals…. my 3 domestic cats get bored so quickly with anything I buy or bring home… kudos to ya’ll!

    kat wilson