Animal Enrichment: The Key to a Life Well Lived!

Imagine how fun and enriching our lives would be if we had our own personal trainer, chef and concierge! Yet only a few fortunate people have these luxuries. The animals at the OKC Zoo, however, although not considered “wealthy” in human terms, are most definitely well cared for, and I have the privilege of being their own behavioral training and enrichment curator.

 Say That Again?

 Enrichment--it’s kind of a funny word. We use it often when referring to animal welfare but most people are unfamiliar with the term. Behavioral enrichment at the Zoo is an entire program designed to provide animals with environmental stimuli for their psychological and physiological well-being.  The goal is to provide opportunities for species-specific behaviors, choice and stimulation in an environment. 

 How Does It Work?

 When we provide enrichment for our animals, we put a process in place that begins long before we place certain items into a habitat. The first thing animal caretakers do is research the animals’ natural and individual history. We want to learn everything we can about each animal’s behavioral scope. We look at what behaviors an animal naturally or normally does so we know what behaviors we want to encourage. We then create a unique offering of enrichment based on each animals’ unique needs.

 Now, with our research laying the foundation of the program, the fun and creativity begin. When we look for items and ideas--the sky is the limit! By varying our enrichment and offering several options, we provide choices to our animals and allow them to control how they want to spend their day. Enriching an animal's environment comes in many forms, including altering the physical environment, modifying animal care, adding items like toys, creating social groupings and increasing sensory stimulation.

 The Fun Begins!

 One of our animals’ favorite forms of enrichment is sensory enrichment. Just as it might sound, sensory enrichment stimulates the animal's senses, including vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Sensory enrichment encourages animals to assess their environment, which promotes natural behaviors like exploration, scent marking, licking and rolling. Unlike some obvious enrichment, like toys and special treats, sensory enrichment might be hard for a Zoo guest to spot in a habitat. It can include offering different or new substrates--things like dirt for digging, logs, leaves, flowers, or even creating mud puddles in the environment. To stimulate hearing, our animals may have sounds played to them, such as music, natural animal sounds or sometimes our keepers even sing! Scents are invisible to the eye yet get a huge reaction from our animals. By offering new scents, such as food scents, other animal scents, perfumes, or herbs, the animals have a new, enriching experience every day. Whereas humans tend to like pleasant or clean scents, most animals prefer the “smellier” ones!

 Fun For You, Too!

 Behavioral enrichment is an exciting and ever-changing part of the Zoo’s overall animal care, but it can add a fun dimension to your Zoo experience. Next time you visit the Zoo, test your observation skills by spotting all the different kinds of enrichment in an animal habitat. Remember to use all your senses to find what you can see, hear and smell! You will gain an appreciation for all the planning, preparation and work that goes into making our animals’ lives as healthy, long and meaningful as possible.

 --Kim Leser, curator of behavioral training and enrichment

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