Zoos often divide opinions. Some argue they are important tools for conservation, aiding endangered species with dedicated breeding programmes and inspiring a new generation of wildlife enthusiasts, while some believe they are purely for entertainment and the money spent on new attractions should be used to fund in-situ conservation. However, whatever your opinion about zoos, I believe most would agree that while they exist, it is important zoos place a large focus on the mental and physical welfare of their animals, making sure they are fit and healthy and have the opportunity to mimic some of the behaviours they would exhibit in the wild.
In their beginning, zoos were nothing more than collections, holding exotic creatures in small, bare cages for the public’s viewing pleasure. Nowadays, many zoos have stepped away from being solely for entertainment purposes to now focus on both conservation and education. Similarly, various organisations have been established, such as BIAZA and EAZA, to promote captive animal welfare and set high standards of zoo management.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and zoo keepers as well as directors must be forward thinking and motivated to make their animal’s welfare standards as high as possible. The role of a zookeeper might seem simple, but in reality, there are many tasks you may not normally consider to be in their job description. For example, you know they must be a chef, preparing and delivering food for their animals, but did you consider they could also be gardeners, growing food for herbivorous species, or butchers, carving and cutting large pieces of meat for the carnivores. They must be teachers, educating the general public on their species as well as training their animals basic commands so they return to their beds or present themselves for veterinary inspections on cue. Behaviourists, nutritionists, midwives, morticians, the list goes on and on.
Arguably one of the most important parts of a zookeeper’s role is providing environmental enrichment to the animals in their care.
“Enrichment is a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animal’s behavioural biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioural choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviours, thus enhancing animal welfare”- AZA Behaviour Scientific Advisory Group, 1999
Put simply, environmental enrichment is anything which improves welfare by stimulating the natural behaviours an animal would exhibit in the wild or, which the above misses out, provides the animal with a mental or physical challenge to combat boredom and improve and maintain their physical and mental health. Still a bit unsure? Well, the chew toy your bought your dog, that’s a form of enrichment. The laser pointer your cat chases? Also enrichment!
Below are links to videos showing some different types of enrichment, all designed through The Shape of Enrichment and their Student Environmental Enrichment Courses.
There are 5 main categories enrichment can focus on:
- Physical habitat
Enrichment can range from the simplistic e.g. dumping a large pile of mud in the rhino enclosure, to the more advanced e.g. creating a ‘flying-fox’ type pulley-mechanism which swings food at high speed through the cheetah enclosure to stimulate their chasing instinct. Whether big or small, elaborate or simple, enrichment can greatly improve captive animal’s quality of life if it is designed appropriately.
Enrichment improves an individuals quality of life, providing them with mental and physical stimulation. It can also be vital for disease prevention, for example, just like in humans, an overweight animal with poorly developed muscles and an in-active lifestyle is more likely to develop problems such as arthritis in later life than a fit, healthy and physically active individual. Enrichment also helps reduce the immunosuppression caused by the increased cortisone and adrenaline which is released during periods of high stress, meaning the animal will be better equipped to fight against disease. Enrichment can also be an important tool for managing behavioural issues. Many animals in captivity express abnormal behaviours such as repetitive pacing or excessive grooming, but by implementing enrichment, these behaviours can be lessened or, even better, prevented from starting in the first place.
Enrichment should be a never ending process, ideally keepers should be designing new enrichment items all the time! It is also important to remember that a large enclosure does not necessarily mean a high standard of welfare. Safari parks in particular often fall into the trap of thinking a large open space is all that is needed for hoof-stock such as zebra, but in reality, the space is no where near the size they would travel in the wild, and would not have the same varying terrains. Instead, zoos should be thinking about the type of enrichment grazing herbivores would benefit from and trying to incorporate these into enclosure design .
Creating enrichment can be difficult, for an inexperienced keeper, it can sometimes seem impossible, but it can be easy if you plan. The main starting point is to think about the goal of the enrichment. In goal-orientated enrichment, the enrichment should be designed with a specific purpose in mind, for example, you could be designing enrichment with the goal of increasing natural foraging behaviour or increasing the time the animal spends in the public view.
Next, think about the animal you are intending to enrich and begin some species-specific research. What sort of behaviours would the species exhibit in the wild, what do the eat, how do they eat, are they solitary or do they live in groups? If you do not consider species-specific research, you could end up building an imaginative and exciting piece of enrichment which ends up being useless because your target species has no interest or use for it. It is also important to remember that in a zoo setting, you are often building enrichment for a specific individual, and so it must be tailored to their individual personality and fitness. Animals must build up their fitness and muscle strength, meaning an enrichment item suited to one animal maybe far too difficult for another. No two animals are alike so neither should enrichment!
Once you have considered the goal, done plenty of species-specific research and thought about the individual animal, you can start coming up with ideas, the crazier the better! In the initial mind-mapping stages its important not to dismiss ideas or put up any barriers, there will be plenty of time for that later!
Once you have a good list of ideas, you can begin thinking about the logistics and narrowing them down. There are lots of things to consider including the costs, the appearance of the enrichment, the reusability and its safety. Some zoos build enclosures with a naturalistic aesthetic, meaning you can rule out using fire-hose, one of the most durable and usable materials you can get. A lot of ideas will have hidden dangers you may not have considered. The feeder that monkeys need to rotate so the food can fall out the small holes is a great idea, but have you considered the risk to small fingers? The tyre swing is fine for the big adults, but what happens when the smaller individuals get their head stuck? This is a big part of designing enrichment, and can be the end for many ideas. However, this is also the time when 2 or 3 of your ideas become a big possibility, and once they’ve been given approval, you can start building them.
While I’m sure most people reading won’t have the chance to design enrichment for zoo animals, some of you may have pets or livestock of your own you could test your ideas on. Get creative and start designing some novel feeders, why not create a pole feeder for your cat? They work for lions!
In June this year, I took part in the 28th SEEC, a course run by the Shape of Enrichment at Newquay Zoo. During the 4 days, we discussed the behavioural theories behind enrichment and how we can improve zoo animal welfare. We were also lucky enough to design and create a piece of goal-orientated enrichment for some of the animals there.
The goal of our enrichment was to increase the pig’s natural foraging behaviour, i.e. browsing low shrubs and rooting through the mud. We came up with lots of ideas and, with the help of a pragmatic keeper, we narrowed it down to 2 main concepts.
- Apple bobbing- chunks of fruit floating in a shallow water tray which the pigs would have to tip over to get the fruit from. By tipping the water out, the ground would become muddy, and the pigs would have to root around for the apple! Plus, after eating the fruit, they would then have a nice mud bath to play in!
- Ker-Plunk feeder- a wooden hollow tube with holes drilled through to the middle. Find some edible branches to stick in the holes, and then fill the hollowed out part with nuts and berries. The pigs must then pull out the branches to let the food fall out through the bottom of the feeder. These could be placed on a stand or hung on the enclosure walls for an extra challenge!
Although the pigs were a bit cautious at first, they soon began to investigate the objects, and after a while, managed to figure them out and had a lot of fun! It’s always important to watch the animals for at least an hour after putting enrichment in their enclosure to ensure they don’t get too stressed having something new in their territory, or misuse it in anyway. Once they have got used to it and you can see it has been a success, you can start to think how often you should put the enrichment in their enclosure. A play object will soon lose its appeal, and the animals are unlikely to play with it constantly. By taking it out and using it once a month, for example, their interest will not wane as quickly as if it were always available.
Enrichment is a vital part of zoo animal care, aiding their welfare by maintaining their fitness, stopping or decreasing abnormal behaviours and reducing boredom, and all keepers should be making sure they are working time into their schedule to plan and build such items. If you want to practise designing enrichment items, why not think about how you could enrich your domestic animals lives? How could you encourage natural foraging behaviour in your pet rabbit? How could you increase your older cat’s activity levels? Could you help your dog lose some weight by making him work for his food? This is a great way to start thinking about how you can improve animal welfare from the comfort of your own home, and it will probably be fun for you too!
If you are at College or University and thinking about a career as a zoo keeper, I thoroughly recommend booking onto a Student Environmental Enrichment Course with The Shape of Enrichment. Details and more information on captive animal welfare and enrichment can be found on their website.