Polar bear plays with a ball (Photo: DJJAM)

Polar Bear Puzzles and Meerkats on the Bus

Meerkats on a school bus!
Meerkats on a school bus!

When you visit the Zoo, especially if you attend any of our animal chats, you probably hear a lot about enrichment. You may have seen many examples, especially when we highlight fun themes like back-to-school or Halloween. A talented volunteer Enrichment Committee makes the clever, colorful creations that you sometimes see animals interact with. Recently, the meerkats climbed aboard a cardboard school bus and the lions attacked a sun, moon, and Earth aligned for a model eclipse. As cool as these objects are, the keepers and volunteers never forget that the real goal is quality of life for the animals. If visitors enjoy watching, that’s a bonus!

Our keepers continuously strive to make the lives of our animals more full and interesting. Enrichment benefits their physical and mental health, and gives them choices about how to spend their time. Some forms of enrichment you see and some you don’t, but you may be surprised at how much is happening at any given time. Read on to learn about different types of enrichment.

Food

Chester, an Andean bear, manipulates a puzzle feeder
Chester, an Andean bear, manipulates a puzzle feeder

Enrichment often involves providing novel food items, sometimes requiring the animal to use mental and physical skills to extract it. If you’ve ever put treats inside a toy for your dog, you have firsthand experience with this kind of enrichment. Our Andean bear, Chester, excels at getting snacks out of a puzzle feeder, while the polar bears like working their way through “fishcicles.” And large predators like our lions and African painted dogs sometimes receive carcasses to mimic whole prey they would devour in the wild.

Scent

Many animals rely heavily on their sense of smell to navigate their world. Just as new tastes can stimulate an animal’s brain, so can novel scents. For smaller animals like tenrecs, spices might be placed on cotton balls inside their home. Animals also respond to the scents of each other.

Social Interaction

Gorillas live in social groups (Photo: Lisa Hubbard)
Gorillas live in social groups (Photo: Lisa Hubbard)

Many animals live in social groups naturally and, in these cases, zoos try to mimic those situations. The gorilla habitat, for example, allows plenty of space with different features that allow theses social primates to interact with each other as little or as much as they wish. The habitat also offers activities—like the chance to hunt for raisins and peanuts hidden throughout the yard—which they might engage in alone or together.

Human Interaction

An operant conditioning session with Duke, the sea lion (Photo: DJJAM)
An operant conditioning session with Duke, the sea lion (Photo: DJJAM)

Interacting with animal care staff during operant conditioning sessions, in which animals are rewarded for desired behaviors with positive reinforcement, provides enrichment for most of the animals in our care. Other forms of socialization can be enriching as well.

The Future of Enrichment

Many zoos and aquariums, including our own, are starting to more precisely measure the effectiveness of enrichment. Staff and volunteers observe different animals—including takins, giraffes, polar bears, aardwolves, and Asian elephants—and track their behavior.

Anana the polar bear with ice (Photo: Michelle Curley)
Anana the polar bear with ice (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Each individual animal has a unique personality, preferences and motivations. David Orban, the Zoo’s Animal Excellence Coordinator explains, “While one polar bear may spend upwards of 30 minutes figuring out how to get food out of a puzzle feeder, that other polar bear may prefer to pounce on a floating raft. When we constructed ice piles in the polar bear habitat, Anana rolled around in them, whereas Little One only ate the ice and pawed through it. By knowing our animals better, we can tailor our enrichment to more effectively enhance their individual well-being.”

Condors with pumpkins (Photo: DJJAM)
Condors with pumpkins (Photo: DJJAM)

Our Enrichment Committee is currently working to compile natural history information on every species in our collection. With information about the animals’ natural behavior and abilities, animal care staff can design enrichment experiences designed to elicit specific natural behaviors.

The next time you visit the Zoo, keep your eyes peeled for enrichment items in the habitats. Go a step further, if you’re inclined, and ask Zoo staff about a particular animal’s enrichment. There may be amazing things going on with that animal as we work toward giving it the most enriching life we can.