If you’ve been to a zoo lately, you may have noticed a few things look different than what zoos looked like to previous generations. Once nothing more than cages to keep animals on display, zoos have evolved to become research centers, conservation professionals, rehabilitation management centers, and breeding areas. Although zoos and other animal entertainment facilities are still a controversial subject to some people (and rightfully so), zoos play an important part in what we know and continue to learn about protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable species from extinction.
One of the things that researchers have learned- and began to care about- is environmental enrichment of their captive animals. Environmental enrichment is the idea that if the artificial habitat mimics the natural habitat in as many ways as possible, the animal will simply, be healthier. Although we humans can’t pretend to anthropomorphize non-human animals, some would say that certain additions to habitats result in animals showing behaviors that we would subjectively qualify as happy. Basically, when zoos attempt to make their exhibit look and feel like the wild, they don’t do it for our sake, they zoo it for the sake of the animal!
Of course, it’s about more than design. There are many aspects of environmental enrichment than doesn’t necessarily look natural, but those aspects are designed to mimic a natural behavior, which is sometimes why you will see toys, such as giant balls or other items in the animal habitat. Obviously, animals do not have balls in their natural homes, but the balls or toys encourage activity and play, things that have been sorely missing in the history of captive animals.
There are many other additions or changes that have proven to be useful in zoo settings.
Exhibit design- As mentioned above, more and more exhibits are being designed with the intention to look like the natural environments. Examples of these can include much larger enclosures or areas to roam, various types of substrates which could mimic different land and water types found in the natural environment, different levels encouraging climbing or jumping, and other complex land features. Some exhibits will even include a variety of species that would naturally be seen together- provided, of course, that none present any potential harm to another.
Training- Interaction between the zookeeper and the animal is a tricky situation. If you have an animal that you plan to reintroduce to the wild at some point, human interaction must be kept to a minimum. However, some animals will never be reintroduced to the wild, and human interaction and training can prove useful to the health of the animal. If the animal can be trained to trust the zookeeper, better records can be kept, the habitat can be cleaned, and other activities can be performed more easily, causing less stress to the captive animal. Minimizing unnatural stress in the captive environment is an important thing for any zookeeper wanting to display compassion toward their animal.
Sounds and Smells- Notice above, unnatural stress is to be avoided. BUT, stress, in general is an important part of every animal’s health (yes, us human animals too). In the wild, stress means survival, it means activity, it means food, the hunter, the prey… Lots of crazy stuff happens in the wild and in a sense, animals thrive on that. Call it the “thrill of the chase” maybe, but there is something to be said about natural stress and action. Sounds and smells can play into this. Sounds of the predator or the prey can be played. Treats will a strong scent can be hidden. The natural smells and sounds will encourage the hunting and seeking behavior, encouraging action, movement, and exercise. This, in turns, benefits the health of the animal as they get their adrenaline rush and exercise.
Food- Like the smells and sounds, food is important. Food may be the MOST important actually, as feeding is one of the most unnatural things that happens in a captive setting. In the wild, it’s eat or be eaten. You hunt or starve. In a captive setting, food is often the same thing, provided at the same time, in the same manner. There is definitely no wild chase, there is no potential for death, no chances of a missed meal. Animals can become, for a lack of better word, bored. Bored and lazy and lethargic can lead to a host of problems, and that is something no zoo wants. So, changes in food can be a huge part of enrichment. Food can be hidden to be foraged. It can be inside of puzzles, to encourage problem solving. Food can be served on different timers so that the animals do not become dependent on receiving meals at the exact same time. Meat can be hidden, requiring carnivores to hunt for it. And, as a treat during the hot summers, many zoos freeze treats such as melon in giant ice blocks, providing comfort, entertainment, and delicious treats during the hottest time of the year.
Toys- Another thing you’ll see fairly commonly, especially with animals like elephants, are a number of toys within their enclosures. Balls to kick around. Logs to toss to each other. Large water features to splash and play in. Each of these things encourages activity and play for the animals. Active animals mean healthy and happy animals. Healthy animals will live longer, have fewer diseases, and be more likely to reproduce and raise healthy offspring.
So, how do you know if an animal is “happy”? Well, we can tell an animal is well-adjusted if it exhibits certain behaviors and avoids certain other behaviors. Zookeepers look for an animal that is eating and socializing properly. Negative behavior to be avoided is pacing back and forth and stressed cries. Loss of hair and other unhealthy behavior can also be recorded.
Ideally, the purpose of enrichment in zoos is to learn more about the animals and how we can help conserve them in their natural environments. We have only a small window of time to protect some endangered species and the more we learn and the quicker we learn about them, their behaviors, and their breeding habits, the better we can treat them as we find ways to restore a natural habitat for them. So, next time you see something strange or different in a zoo enclosure, don’t be afraid to ask the zookeeper about it. They will be able to tell you all about the wonderful developments they’ve made because of environmental enrichment!