Biologist Chris Felts introduces you to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about animal enrichment!

By: Chris Felts, Biologist

When you think about zoos and aquariums, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind are all the amazing animals you see when you visit. At Adventure Aquarium alone we have hippos, penguins, sea turtles, sharks, crocodiles, parrots, frogs, jellies and approximately a bajillion fish, all under one roof! All those animals need proper care, but have you ever thought about what that means? Sure, some things are pretty simple; every animal needs food, the right water source and some kind of shelter, but what about an animal’s more complicated needs? What about their mental stimulation? How do you exercise an animal’s brain? Well, it’s not quite as complicated as you might think and involves a process called enrichment.

Enrichment is one of those buzz words that sounds like a big to-do, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand and you probably already do it at home with your cat or dog. It’s all about mixing stuff up, adding things to an animal’s environment or changing the way normal bits of their routine are presented. Since Adventure Aquarium is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), we must be just as meticulous about providing our animals with mental stimulation as we are about caring for their physical well-being, and over the years we’ve developed many different bits of enrichment. Since our enrichment isn’t too far a jump from what you do with your pets at home, we thought it would be cool to show you some of things we’ve found our animals to enjoy.

…through the tried and true method of cute blog-worthy pictures, of course.

In the upcoming months we’ll be posting blogs that focus more on individual animals at the Aquarium and their favorite enrichment, but today’s post is more on an introduction to the subject, sort of a crash course on animal enrichment. Animal Brain Exercise 101, if you will. Let’s start with the basics, the six different types of enrichment.

Food Enrichment

Animal Enrichment-Food

Everyone likes food, right? Of course they do, and in changing how food is presented to our animals we can encourage them to forage and work for their food just like they would in their natural environment. Sometimes we’ll even give them something new and exciting to eat, a special treat that can make a parrot whistle with glee!

Sensory Enrichment

Animal Enrichment-sensory

How many times has your dog suddenly stopped to investigate a curious smell? Enough to give your leash arm a strain, I bet. New sights, sounds, and smells are just as interesting to your dog as they are to armadillos, hippos, penguins and many other animals. How you introduce that sensory information can happen any numbers of ways; maybe through a television, maybe a disco ball, maybe a cd player armed with rainforest noises. Maybe a cardboard box your brother porcupine peed on. The possibilities are limitless.

Manipulation Enrichment

Animal Enrichment-manipulation

This type of enrichment can be simple or complex. For some animals a box they can rip to shreds or a scratching post they can sharpen their claws on can be very enriching. Other animals, like primates, octopus, and parrots, are very intelligent and capable of changing and manipulating their environment using complex digits. Giving these animals puzzles that yield rewards after being solved can be a great way to exercise their brains. If those rewards happen to be food, then you’ve got two types of enrichment in one! Bonus points!

Environmental Enrichment

Animal Enrichment - Penguin

An animal’s environment can technically include anything and everything around it, but when you’re talking about enrichment you tend to be concerned with the bigger changes you can make, like bringing an animal to a different location for a short period of time. Some of our parrots, for example, love going to different areas of the aquarium, and even sitting in on our husbandry meetings.

Social Enrichment

Trinidad_4.14.142 (2)

In especially social species of animals, the ones that hang out in large groups, social interaction and enrichment are an important part of their lives. Often times at the Aquarium, we find ourselves as part of the social equation. It sounds a little cliché, but we do make friends with our animals and they do get enjoyment and mental stimulation out of seeing their favorite Biologists, just like your dog is always excited to see you come home from work. For a specific example, in the picture above, Amy is petting Trinidad, our largest parrot. He doesn’t exactly allow anyone to just do that; Amy has built up a relationship over the course of several years to the point that Trinidad demands scratchies from her.


Animal Enrichment-Training

Yep, training is enrichment. We do a lot of training at Adventure Aquarium, providing quite a bit of mental stimulation for our animals, while at the same time allowing the Biologists to take better care of them. Beyond asking for a parrot to say, “Hello”, or one of our hippos to open their mouth, training can also facilitate other forms of enrichment. Training a penguin or a porcupine to go into a crate allows us to take them elsewhere, which as I previously mentioned leads to environmental enrichment. Conversely, training also gives you an avenue with which to introduce other forms of enrichment as a reward, like giving a Parrot a whole peanut as food enrichment for an especially good job well done.

And those are the six kinds of enrichment. Not too complicated right? Now that we’ve gone over that, look for more enrichment blogs in the near future!

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