Behavioral enrichment

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

Preventing captive animals from suffering terminal boredom has been a primary concern of zookeepers since ancient times. Excessively bored animals not only become listless and uninteresting to crowds, but also develop self-destructive behavior. For centuries–after tossing prisoners to ferocious beasts fell out of vogue–the antidote was obliging animals to earn their food by performing.

That approach too has fallen from favor, as zoos have moved toward naturalistic exhibits in an emphasis upon showing animals acting as they would in the wild. But even the best naturalistic settings are too small to offer intelligent species much variety in stimulus. Thus behavioral enrichment programs are again borrowing from the past. Since 1991, Los Angeles zoo volunteers have been making animals earn their meals again: primates must find whole fruit and oatmeal hidden beneath hay and in nooks and crannies of their quarters, polar bears must extricate fish from floating blocks of ice, and hippos forage for greenery dumped into their wading pond, instead of being piled at the side. At the Toledo Zoo meanwhile, head veterinarian Timothy Reichard notes improved health and behavior in animals who have been taught to do various tricks to facilitate frequent physical examinations. The training program, now two years old, seems to stimulate the animals’ interest in their surroundings. Reichard’s staff began by training great apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas; went to monkeys when that succeeded; and have since progressed to training
elephants, bears, sea lions, red pandas, a zebra, and a giraffe. About 40 other zoos have requested details of the Toledo Zoo techniques.

The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle plans to open a $7.7 million “Northern Trail” exhibit this fall that will combine the naturalistic and behavioral enrichment approaches. The plans call for mountain goats to lick water from rocks moistened by hidden pipes, while bears are to fish live salmon from an artificial stream and harvest salmonberries from bushes cultivated in their cages. The latter idea may prove problematic; attempts at including actual fruit-and-flower-producing shrubbery in naturalistic exhibits elsewhere have historically failed because zoo animals tend to destroy the plants out of boredom.

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