Enrichment isn’t an option; it’s a necessity
What is enrichment?
I’ve always described enrichment as an arousal of the senses. There are five different senses, and many times, I incorporate enrichment using more than one of these senses. Enrichment can come in the form of visual, olfactory, tactile, audible, and oral. Enrichment can come in the form of a toy, a change in the environment, a scent, food, or something the animal can touch or manipulate. There is such a wide variety of ways we can incorporate enrichment into the lives of animals under our care.
Is enrichment important?
That depends on whom you ask. Most of our work at The Animal Behavior Center focuses on enrichment for many important reasons. Studies show if you are actually using positive reinforcement training, it is the animal’s preferred form of enrichment. I agree. I see this every day. If the animal is giving behaviors for items or events of high value, why would it want the training to stop? This is the primary reason why I train.
If you were to ask me if enrichment is important, I would tell you it’s not an option; it’s a necessity. When an animal is in our care, its choices are usually restricted in some form or another. These choices can be restrictive due to their safety when we aren’t able to supervise. A dog living in a house has restricted options in choice. For this reason, it is important to focus on the animal’s choices and increase those choices by providing enrichment.
There are government regulations on enrichment for zoos and aquariums. These government regulations are starting to focus more on all animals, not just those of higher intelligence. Birds are the most recent focus of their implementation. There is also the Animal Welfare Act, first implemented in 1966 and revised numerous times since then. The primary purpose of the AWA is to ensure that animals receive the minimum standards of humane care and treatment.
How does one identify enrichment?
Enrichment should engage the animal in interacting with it. The more the animal interacts with it, the more it manipulates it through investigation and curiosity. Curiosity engages the animal mentally and physically. Studies show that mental and physical stimulation is extremely important to an animal’s well-being.
When I’m working with a curious animal, it is manipulating its environment to identify what the environment contains that can bring the animal satisfaction. I observe the choices the animal makes. I then take those reinforcers and provide them in various ways to keep the animal engaged in the future.
When we help provide choices to an animal, we are helping empower that animal. Empowerment is giving that animal power over its environment. We can set up the environment to help the animal make appropriate choices and help prevent behavior concerns. We can empower animals by providing choice, control, and changing and increasing complexities.
It is important to note that enrichment should be individualized and based on and designed around the one animal in front of you. Let me give you an example that made this point very clear to me. Let’s say I’m a teacher of a fifth-grade class. Just because I have one student in my class named Sarah doesn’t mean all future students named Sarah will be the same and have the same likes, dislikes, personalities, and behaviors. This is the same for every Rottweiler, ring-tailed lemur, or Umbrella cockatoo sitting in front of us.
Animals of the same species are all individuals and should be treated and approached as such. An individual animal’s history will differ in how it was raised, what choices it was provided, and the behavior concerns it may have. These factors are extremely important when deciding what enrichment we will provide.
How does enrichment impact behavior concerns?
Behavior concerns develop from a lack of individualized enrichment. If we don’t provide mental and physical stimulation in the form of enrichment, the animal will find a way to occupy its time, and it’s likely not going to be behaviors we want them to learn. Once they learn undesired behaviors, we need to counter-condition them, meaning retraining them. This can take a lot of effort and be preventable in the first place.
Animals living in boring, stagnant environments often develop more serious behavior concerns. The longer the animal lives in these conditions, the more likely the animal to develop abnormal repetitive behaviors, also known as stereotypical behaviors. These health-concerning behaviors can be repetitive rocking, rhythmic screaming, circling, excessive grooming or preening, eating inedible objects, pacing, self-mutilation, and more. In many cases, these concerning behavior issues can turn into medical concerns.
If the animal has a behavior concern, I always include enrichment in my behavior modification plan. One of my favorite types of enrichment to provide is foraging. Foraging is when the animal works for its food. It’s like providing puzzle feeders where an animal has to figure out how to obtain the food. The food should be attainable, and often this process needs to be shaped, meaning reinforced in small approximations.
I always observe the animal before I include any type of enrichment. Just because I may need enrichment for a ring-tailed lemur doesn’t mean I provide the same kind of enrichment that I did with the last lemur I worked with. Each animal is its own individual and what might be considered enriching and empowering for one could be a feared item or situation for another. Many of the animals I work with come from various backgrounds or histories. The animal that is raised with little or no enrichment is also usually the animal that develops abnormal repetitive behaviors due to a lack of stimulated environments. In these cases, something we may consider a small, simple object could be a stressful event for an individual. In these situations, changes in the environment need to be shaped based on the individual’s behavior. I have yet to have one encounter with a stressed animal showing abnormal repetitive behaviors. These behaviors could not be modified through positive reinforcement training and we can shape enrichment through positive reinforcement training.
I observe the animal, note concerns, and jot down goals and ideas. Then I implement them at the animal’s confidence level once I’ve identified positive reinforcers. When I first began working with exotics and zoos, it was common to hear that exotic animals should only be provided natural enrichment. This bothered me because I always wanted to provide whatever the animal was comfortable with, whether natural or not. Most enrichment that would be considered natural are things like browse (tree limbs), trees to climb and fly to, tall grasses to roll in, scents, etc. Yes, that could be enrichment, but you will have a bored animal pretty quickly. I’ll provide foraging toys like pools filled with balls, puzzle feeders, and hidden blocks that animals have to try to fly to, swing to, climb to, etc.
It is also extremely important to provide variety and complexity levels in enrichment, including our training. With predictability comes boredom. Once the animal engages with or figures out the enrichment, it is extremely important to add consistent challenges to the enrichment that results in continued engagement. With engagement, the animal is learning. If the animal is learning it means the animal’s choice is involved. When the animal has the choice, the animal has control. You have an empowered animal when animals have choice, control, and complexity.