Steps and Tips for designing Animal Enrichment

If you’re an animal care professional, there is no doubt that you’ve heard the term “enrichment” used frequently at your institution. You’ve probably had the opportunity to design some yourself. But what exactly is the working definition of “enrichment”? While there are so many definitions available, and none that are wrong, we've adopted D.J. Shepherdson’s definition of enrichment, “… 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”. [1]

Animal enrichment has been shown to increase the welfare of captive animals through increasing activity, promoting species-specific behaviors, and decreasing stereotypic behaviors.[2] Zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, and animal shelters have jumped on the enrichment bandwagon and are regularly implementing it into the daily lives of their animals, which is great. Some facilities even have entire databases dedicated to the process of creating enrichment for every species in their care. You can visit ours here.
 

We’ve collected some great tips and advice to help you make the best enrichment possible for your animals so you ensure their utmost physical and mental health.

Steps for Designing ANimal Enrichment

Set behavior goal(s)

Which behaviors would you like to see more of? Maybe you're looking to increase overall activity, promote foraging, or distract animals from undesirable behaviors.

Think

What can you provide your animal to elicit the behaviors you're looking for?

Design

It's useful to sketch out enrichment ideas first. Make sure you're using items that are non-toxic, easy to clean, and will not be swallowed. Can animals get hurt with the enrichment?

Test

This is the best part! Once you've tested the enrichment, you might have to make some fixes or changes.

Evaluate

Determine if your enrichment item met your behavioral goal(s). Learn how here.

Tips for making great Enrichment

Tip 1: The most important tip... enrichment should be designed with a purpose. The idea behind your enrichment item should come from the behaviors you want to see in your animal (do you want to see more foraging? More locomotion? More tool-use?) Once you’ve identified a behavior you’d like to increase, you can start brainstorming designs. 

Tip 2: Just because an animal isn't directly interacting with enrichment doesn't mean it isn't effective. Say you put cinnamon in your tiger’s enclosure. Odds are she won’t spend the whole day with her nose in the scent. However, if you watch her behavior, you might see that she is spending more time in parts of her exhibit that she normally doesn’t visit, or that she is more active. This would tell you that cinnamon is an effective form of enrichment with the purpose of exhibit exploration or increased activity. 

Tip 3: If you're creating an enrichment device that requires animals to solve a problem, try to match the difficulty level with the animal's skill set. Problem-solving abilities vary from animal to animal, and each individual animal has a different skill set and a different tolerance for frustration. When you're creating cognitive enrichment, you'll want to make sure the puzzle isn't so easy for the animal that it's not rewarding, but not so difficult for the animal that it's super frustrating. Matching the level of difficulty of the enrichment to the animal's skill set will help animals achieve "flow", which can be described as complete immersion in the enrichment item, or being "in the zone".[3]

Tip 4: Novelty is key! Enrichment diminishes in value once an animal learns how to solve the puzzle or isn’t intrigued by it anymore. It is super important to have an enrichment schedule that ensures the rotation of novel enrichment in and out of an exhibit.

Did you make a creative enrichment item for your animal? Send an email to emily@wildthink.org with a picture and a short description of the enrichment and we will add it to our enrichment database so other caretakers can make it for their animals!

 
  1. 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.

  2. Lambeth, S.P., Bloomsmith, M.A. (1994) A grass foraging device for captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Anim. Welfare 3, 13–24.

  3. Clark, F.E. (2011) Great ape cognition and captive care: Can cognitive challenges enhance well-being? Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 135, 1-12.

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