Captive Animal Enrichment


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Animal enrichment is a term frequently used at zoos, aquariums and wildlife facilities. But what exactly does it mean? Heidi Hellmuth, Curator of Enrichment and Training at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, explains it to Nat Geo Inside WILD.

Animal enrichment strategies encourage mental and physical stimulation and exercise, and methods can vary significantly, depending on the individual creature or specific species.

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“Enrichment includes much more than just objects, or ‘toys’,” explains Heidi. “Here at the Smithonsian’s National Zoo, we describe enrichment by using six different categories: objects, dietary, sensory, exhibit design and furnishings, social and cognitive. Some enrichment strategies combine several categories, for example we might put a piece of shrimp inside of a plastic, twist-top jar for our octopus. This combines an object, dietary enrichment and a cognitive challenge for the octopus to get the food item out of the jar.”

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Each enrichment tool goes through an approval process before its introduction to the captive animal. Heidi shares that at the National Zoo “animal keepers fill out information on what animal or species the enrichment item is for, what the item is, what the goal of it is, where to get it, how much it costs, if it takes time or assistance from other departments to construct it, etc. There is also a safety section with a checklist of potential safety risks to consider, and a section to note any restrictions on use, such as allowed only when supervised, or only with adult animals, etc. Once the keeper completes the form, it is also reviewed by the enrichment/training curator, area curator, and when appropriate by animal health and/or nutrition. This way we have multiple people looking at the proposed enrichment item to make sure it is appropriate and considered as safe as possible for the animal involved.”

Goal-based strategy is an important element of captive animal enrichment. Animal keepers and curators often evaluate and determine what behaviors they want to encourage from the animal, or what the enrichment might facilitate. Heidi says that “this all starts with studying the natural history and behavior of the species, since the main goal of a good enrichment program is to offer the animals in our care with opportunities to utlize their natural abilities and to exhibit species-typical behaviors.”

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 Animals – just like humans and pets – frequently have a favorite toy or past time, or display preferences or hesitation toward certain activities. Heidi shares that the National Zoo’s female giant panda, Mei Xiang, “like to ‘cradle’ a Kong toy when she is exhibiting nesting behaviors (like with a pregnancy or pseudo-pregnancy). One of the orangutans, Lucy, appears to really enjoy cloth items like sheets, blankets and clothing. Our female African lions, Naba and Shera, loved a new toy called a ‘weeble,’ but unfortunately they also destroyed it in less than a half hour!  Our last giant Pacific octopus had an orange, rubber octopus toy that she seemed to favor, and we’ve recently discovered that a fly river turtle in the Reptile Discovery Center really enjoys an air stone, which puts out a curtain of air bubbles.”

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Photo Credits: Mehgan Murphy, National Zoo.

Learn more about the inner-workings of a zoo and the strategies used to keep captive animals healthy and happy by watching the Nat Geo Wild show, My Life Is a Zoo airs Saturday October 2 at 9P et/pt.