Tuesday, October 01, 2013
Hi everyone! I’m Dominique. I’ve worked, volunteered, and interned (not all at the same time, mind you) at the Aquarium of the Pacific in various positions since 2005. I’ve taught classes, lead boat trips, guided kayakers, gone diving in tanks, prepped food for fish, and helped care for big sharks! I guess I just can’t get enough. So, when the husbandry department offered the opportunity to help with animal enrichment I jumped at the chance.
I’m sure many of you, over your visits to the Aquarium, have noticed chew- toys in the otter exhibit, lorikeets picking at carved pumpkins or melons, discarded parts from a popular, potato-faced children’s toy outside the octopus’s cave, and the sea lions hopping on and jumping off floating rafts in their exhibit. These are all types of animal enrichment. Hmmm, that just sounds like tons of toys and lots of playing… and what could be better than just playing with animals all day, right?
Actually, enrichment is quite a bit more than just playing with animals all day. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums defines enrichment as:
“a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare.”
Basically, enrichment is something that is done for the animal, which engages and stimulates the animal, to enhance its wellbeing. At the Aquarium, we want all of our animals to be as healthy and happy as they possibly can be. So in addition to the restaurant quality seafood and top-of-the-line medical care they also get regular mental stimulation, interesting challenges, and fun (and sometimes tasty) things to explore —or enrichment.
Enrichments can be a part of an animal’s exhibit or habitat, an object, a special food item, something that stimulates the animal’s senses, interactions with other animals or even training sessions. What’s important is that the enrichment challenges the animal to use its natural behaviors and provides the animal with a mental challenge. Plus, it’s fun! The chew toys in the otter exhibit, when filled with food, become a puzzle requiring the otter to use their big brain to figure out how to extract the food, much like they would in the wild. Carved gourds let the lorikeets climb, maneuver, and peck away to obtain the special, tasty treat inside. A new raft in the sea lions’ exhibit piques their curiosity and prompts them to investigate, keeping them on their toes (or flipper tips).
Providing a good enrichment item requires a strong knowledge of an animal’s natural behaviors. Staff, interns and volunteers working on enrichments know the animals well, but sometimes even we have to do some extra research before getting started on a new enrichment project. After learning as much as we can about an animal and its behaviors, we design and build their enrichment item. However, giving the animal their new toy isn’t the end. We observe the animals and how they interact with their enrichment items. We also keep detailed records of how they respond to the items. It’s important to see just how the animals reacts to and interacts with its new item. The animal may love the enrichment! Or a few changes may need to be made before trying again. Sometimes we may put in hours and hours working on an amazing enrichment item, only to have the receiving animal turn its nose up at it and just walk (or waddle… or swim) away!
There is a lot of hard, and rewarding, work involved in creating and producing enrichment items. And it’s a constant process. It is very important that an animal doesn’t get used to or bored of an enrichment item. If the animal does, the object isn’t enrichment anymore. We constantly have to come up with new ideas and test out new enrichments. I’m excited to be sharing with you stories behind some of the new enrichment items we’re developing and testing, as well as some fun stories behind enrichments you may have already seen our animals using. Keep an eye out for the stories here and the enrichment items in the exhibits at the Aquarium!
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