Enriching Animal Lives

Providing enrichment to our animals is an excellent way to provide opportunities for them to engage in species-typical behavior, such as foraging or exploring. Enrichment at Brookfield zoo goes above and beyond exhibit design, in which we offer an environment with horizontal and vertical dimensions to enhance space use; live plants for shade, barriers, and perching; natural substrates for burrowing, and so on. Different types of enrichment are meant to stimulate different senses, such as sight, sound, scent, taste, touch, and social interaction.  The enrichment we provide on a daily basis allows animals to make meaningful choices in their environment, and provides physical and cognitive stimulation.

When planning devices and activities to enrich the animals’ lives, it is important to create a goal by identifying which species-typical behavior we want to stimulate. We also want to assess, via scientific observation, whether the enrichment we provide meets this goal effectively. Importantly, encouraging animals to engage in natural behavior can keep them physically active and psychologically healthy.

The best enrichment for most social animals is being housed with a social partner(s)! Conspecific interaction offers opportunities to play, groom, mate, thermoregulate, and importantly- to learn new skills from each other.

Meerkats are avid social learners, just like us! Naïve meerkats will observe how a knowledgeable individual interacts with this pipe feeder before trying it. This is a critical social skill carried over from the wild, where meerkat pups learn how to carefully eat a venomous scorpion first by observing how adults remove the stinger.

Some more shy animals, such as the boa constrictor, may need some coaxing to explore their habitats. Brookfield Zoo presents rodent-scented coconut fibers to encourage exhibit exploration in some of our reptiles, as well as some felines.

One of the goals of successful enrichment is to challenge an animal to solve problems in its environment. A daily challenge that animals face in the wild is acquiring food, and there is ample opportunity to present animals with puzzles to solve at Brookfield.

Tool use is an important aspect of the lives of curious primates, and you can often see the orangutans in Tropic World creating solutions by fabricating tools to access out-of-reach treats like peanut butter.

Feeding enrichment should also extend the amount of time it takes to ingest the food, to mimic the activity budgets of wild counterparts. A simple trick to accomplish this is by freezing treats into giant blocks of ice! This will occupy an animal for a much longer time than by simply feeding them directly.

Treats frozen in ice will keep painted dogs busy, and cool on summer days. Try freezing a treat in an ice cube for your dog at home!

We take great pride in our naturalistic enrichment design—look carefully and you may notice that a feature in an exhibit is actually an automatic feeder that releases food at different times of the day, which ensures that animals are constantly exploring.

Perhaps you’ve seen a monkey interacting with this “wasp nest”?

In addition to supporting excellent welfare, developing and maintaining natural behaviors is crucial for successful reintroduction to the wild. For example, our Mexican gray wolves have access to several dens in which to raise their pups, and are fed deer carcasses, so that they can learn all the proper behavior and are prepared for their new lives in Arizona.

-Katie Hall
Postdoctoral Fellow, Animal Welfare Research

Posted: 4/28/2017 10:54:22 AM by Bryan Todd Oakley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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