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What's the point of Animal Enrichment?

Science has proven time and time again that providing captive animals with enrichment improves their welfare. The idea behind enrichment is simple--increasing the complexity of an animal's environment gives animals more mental and physical stimulation, which ultimately leads to happier, healthier animals. 

You might be surprised to hear that animal enrichment is a relatively recent development that started gaining momentum and becoming common practice in laboratories and zoos in the 1980s.[1]

If you're interested in learning more about the history of animal enrichment, this is a great blog post from PRIM&R, and this paper by Kristina M. Adams from the US Department of Agriculture describes the history and legislature more in-depth.


Animal care experts have yet to agree on one single definition for animal enrichment. We like D.J. Shepherdson's definition: “… an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well being.[2]

Benefits of Animal Enrichment

Increases the amount of time animals spend active

Decreases stress and boredom-related behaviors

Encourages animals to express behaviors they'd be doing in the wild

Decreases abnormal and stereotypic behaviors.

Allows animals to have control over their environment

Fun for guests and visitors to watch animals use enrichment

Challenges of Captivity

Caring for animals presents unique challenges, some of which can affect animal welfare. The first challenge is that animals in captivity are subjected to different stressors. Sounds, smells, substrates, changes in weather, presence of human observers, and enclosure design can all lead to stress.[3][4]

The second challenge of caring for animals is preventing boredomAnimals cared for by humans don't have to rely on themselves for survival. They're fed, given water, and have access to shelter. Their wild counterparts spend lots of energy finding food by foraging or hunting, escaping danger, forming social bonds with other individuals, searching for or building shelter, and learning about the environment around them because their lives depend on it. Animals living in captivity don't have to do most of the things their wild counterparts do... so what do they do all day? Animals' brains and bodies are built for surviving in the wild. If animals don't use their minds and bodies in the ways which they evolved, animals exhibit signs of boredom and can resort to performing abnormal behaviors as a coping mechanism.

Our goal as keepers and caretakers is to combat stress, boredom, and abnormal behaviors with enrichment. Research shows that animals with access to enrichment in their environments are less likely to show signs of boredom and stress, are more likely to occupy their time doing natural, healthy behaviors, and are better at coping with the stress of captivity.

Giving the Right Enrichment

The point of enrichment is not just to throw a plastic toy into an animal's enclosure and claim that the animal has been enriched for the day. As we saw in D.J. Shepherdson's definition of enrichment above, the point of enrichment is to provide animals with the right kind of stimulation to ensure they're as mentally and physically healthy as possible. This means determining what kinds of things an animal would be doing in the wild and providing opportunities for your animal to do those behaviors (or similar behaviors). When you're making enrichment, ask yourself which natural behaviors you're trying to stimulate. 

  • Is the animal a forager or grazer? Should the enrichment be something to make food acquisition more challenging and time consuming?

  • Is the animal a predator that will explore its enclosure to seek out new scents?

  • Are you caring for a prey animal that enjoys hiding?


These are just a few examples, but they should provide a good place to start when you are trying to come up with enrichment. Click here for more detailed steps and tips for creating great enrichment.

  1. Adams, K.M. (2008). Refinement in the literature: Searching for environmental enrichment. AATEX 14, Special Issue, 307-312; Proc. 6th World Congress on Alternatives & Animal Use in the Life Sciences. Tokyo, Japan: Japanese Society for Alternatives to Animal Experiments.

  2. Shepherdson, D.J. (1998). Tracing the path of environmental enrichment in zoos. in Shepherdson, D.J., Mellen, J.D. and Hutchins, M. (1998) Second Nature – Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals, 1st Edition, Smithsonian Institution Press, London, UK, pp. 1–12.

  3. Birke, Lynda. (2002). Effects of Browse, Human Visitors and Noise on the Behaviour of Captive Orang Utans. Animal Welfare. 11. 189-202. 

  4. Morgan, Kathleen & Tromborg, Chris. (2006). Sources of stress in captivity. Appl Anim Behav Sci. Applied Animal Behaviour Science - APPL ANIM BEHAV SCI. 102. 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.05.032. 

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