Behavioral enrichment seems to be the “buzz” phrase in the zoo world these days. It is not a new concept, but its importance is being recognized more and more by zoos worldwide. With the increasing environmental enrichment changes, there is an increase of structured goal-based programs, taxon diversity and resources in zoos. Adding a behavioral husbandry program reflects cultural changes in which animal welfare has a growing role.
So, what is enrichment? It is a dynamic process that structures and changes an animal’s environment in a way that provides behavioral choices to animals and draws out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities to enhance their welfare. Whew, that’s a mouth full! Simply put, enrichment provides an appropriate environment that promotes natural behaviors.
Enriching an animal’s environment can reduce stress and abnormal behavior, therefore increasing the animal’s optimal state of well being. Normal behavior increases reproduction behaviors including breeding, socialization and parental skills. Enrichment efforts can educate zoo visitors about the animals and present the positive image of a healthy psychological state. The animals are active more often, whether they are exploring, foraging or playing.
Enrichment can be broken down into several classes or types, including physical environment, social environment, dietary, sensory or cognitive.
In order to develop enrichment ideas for the animals, zookeepers have to research their animals to find out what the animals’ needs are. Keepers answer questions pertaining to the natural history of the species, individual animal history and current exhibit design. After reviewing this information, keepers determine which natural behaviors are being exhibited presently and which natural behaviors need to be encouraged. Let the brainstorming begin! Through talking to other keepers, reading professional zoo publications and referring to related websites, keepers can arrive at the best solutions for the behavioral enrichment of the animals in their care.