You might pass time by watching TV, you might entertain your dog by throwing a stick or a ball or you might take your child to play in the park. That’s enrichment.
A huge part of animal care here at Blackpool Zoo is to encourage our animals to use their natural abilities and behaviours to interact with their environment. That’s where enrichment comes in.
Enrichment is name given to the approaches and principles adopted to improve the wellbeing of the animals in our care, no matter whether they are furry, feathery or scaly. Enrichment is something that improves an individual’s wellbeing, be it physically, mentally, behaviourally or socially.
Enrichment can take many forms, including the design of stimulating and naturalistic enclosures, the housing of appropriate social groups in zoos, and the introduction of objects, sounds, smells or other stimuli in the animal’s environment. Those out-of-place items you may see in exhibits aren’t there by mistake: they play a key role in stimulating our animals and exciting the senses.
Rather than simply filling a food bowl, keepers will often scatter, smear, freeze or hide meals to encourage animals to forage, hunt and manipulate their food, as they would in the wild.
When an enclosure is designed for an animal, it is done with their natural instincts and behaviours in mind. The physical habitat of the animal plays an important role in their welfare, meeting their physical requirements and providing a positive environment in which for them to live. During your visit, you’ll see hammocks, tyre swings, ropes, perches and climbing structures, all designed to encourage an active lifestyle similar to animals’ natural environments.
Most animals have highly developed sensory abilities. Keen eyesight helps predators find prey. Acute hearing can detect an impending threat. Smells are important for marking and recognizing territories. Sensory enrichment can encompass any of the five senses - sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. The most common form of sensory enrichment used is olfactory enrichment; which utilises sense of smell by introducing new or unusual smells into an enclosure, for example when our Bactrian camels shed their winter coats, keepers will often place it in with the big cats to stimulate their senses as they can smell a prey species. Placing elevated platforms allows them to experience new sights, and placing unusual items in an enclosure will allow them to experience new textures.
Many of our animals take part in some form of training exercises. This is to encourage them to exhibit natural behaviours and to assist the keepers in their day to day care of these animals. For example, training our big cats to stretch allows keepers to visually inspect their entire body to check for injury or sign of illness. This type of training is significant because it allows animals to be examined without having to be sedated, which can be stressful and sometimes even dangerous. All training is done through positive reinforcement, allowing that animal to choose to participate in exchange for their favourite treat.
Mental enrichment presents animals with a challenge or puzzle to solve, for example by using puzzle feeders, they will have to think carefully about how to get their food out. We also use a range of novel objects to challenge our animals and stimulate them mentally. The sort of novel objects that you may see used in this way include Boomer balls, Kong toys, tyres, cardboard tubes and fire hoses.
Social interactions like feeding, playing, grooming, courting, rearing young or marking territory are important components of many animals’ lives. Exhibits are designed to provide social enrichment by appropriately pairing or grouping animals, including mixed species, and making private spaces available for animals to retreat from each other and the public.
Although all of the above could be classified as ‘interactive’ this category mainly consists of the provision of various implements such as mirrors, video and most importantly the staff that work with them. This varies greatly from species to species, however some animals see a huge benefit from interaction. Kate, our Elephant, enjoys the time she spends with her keepers, whether it’s getting a bath, learning a new behaviour or exercising.
Blackpool Zoo’s Enrichment Committee, made up of an experienced team of keepers and staff, meets regularly to evaluate current forms of enrichment and create new ones. A larger network of Zoo staff also play an important role in enrichment planning – whether it’s our maintenance team working on enclosure design, our grounds team collecting browse and plants to feed our animals or the education teams working with visiting groups and students to create enrichment or to carry out research into animal behaviour.