Enrichment is “the action of improving or enhancing the quality of something”. Animal caretakers at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden use enrichment to enhance the quality of an animal’s habitat to ensure high animal welfare. Many of our guests have seen Zoo caretakers add toys, feeders, ice treats or scents to encourage our animals’ natural abilities and ensure they have different opportunities throughout the day.
However, various animals have enrichment opportunities that may be less obvious. For example, guests may see our bears moving a log around the habitat. This is actually a keeper constructed puzzle feeder. Several of our birds and primate species have bamboo in their habitats that can dispense crickets or mealworms. Our squirrel monkeys have a special branch that conceals a frozen water container to keep them cool in the summer.
So how do our animal caretakers learn to become enrichment specialists? Since they don’t teach foraging 101 in school, the Zoo behavioral husbandry department creates specialized workshops to allow caretakers a way to hone their skills. All keepers attend a behavior and design theory class before heading to the workshop for some hands-on time with available materials. Our workshops focus on firehose construction, bamboo puzzle feeders, camouflaging and more. Caretakers can try out techniques and help each other brainstorm ideas that could be enriching to animals in our care.
One of the most popular workshops teaches how to utilize animal-safe epoxy to camouflage PVC items into more naturalistic options for our animals. So, rather than a frozen water container, attendees learn to camouflage it to look like a tree stump. Instead of trying to find branches to create perching for our animals, we can create realistic vines and trees that can be cleaned and last longer.
It’s exciting to see what our animal caretakers produce as their skills grow and their creativity abounds! Currently, the Zoo conducts one workshop a month with varying themes. In the future, we hope to expand these offerings to include larger projects such as aquatic enrichment, floating platforms, and more complex puzzle feeders.
Zoos have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Animal caretakers have a great understanding of animal physical and psychological wellbeing. These workshops create additional ways to provide varying opportunities to encourage natural behaviors and they are a ton of fun!
-Kimberly Leser, curator of behavior husbandry and welfare
Tamarin Photo Courtesy: Brian Whitsitt