Scientists predict that over 1 million species are on the brink of extinction – most of them facing this fate in decades, not centuries, thanks to humans exasperating the situation.
When we talk about zoos, we generally see the public split into two camps: Those who recognize the importance of zoos in studying and understanding animals, and those who believe captive animals belong solely in the wild.
Certainly, wild animals are not pets. In the wild, the only interaction they have with humans is as predator or prey. Placing them on exhibit to be gawked at and caged may be among the cruelest of things we can do, is it not? Surely a wildlife sanctuary would be kinder.
But, as we continue to infringe on their natural habitat, zoos and wildlife sanctuaries become even more important. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival”. Of course we would prefer to have wildlife sanctuaries, but these have proven to be sadly inefficient and incredibly challenging to manage and patrol.
The role of zoos has changed dramatically over the years. Not only do zoos play an important role in science and in understanding and preserving the animals of our world, but they fulfill educational and societal roles that help humans develop empathy for wildlife.
Wildlife Habitat Enrichment
If you haven’t been to a well-run zoo, you’re missing out. Years ago, I was invited to the Phoenix Zoo’s grand opening of their Komodo Dragon enclosure. The zookeeper in charge proudly showed us around a beautifully designed glass enclosure, with tropical grasses, a large pond, plenty of places to bask or hide, and a price tag of about $1.2 million. This enclosure would eventually house two visiting Komodo Dragons and raise enough funds to assist the very few (about 3,000) Komodo dragons who still live in the wild.
The San Diego Zoo is currently helping Australia cope with their heartbreaking loss of over 30% of their population of koala bears after fires ravaged over 80% of their habitat. One month later, it was discovered that loggers massacred even more. In the middle of a mass extinction, conservation becomes critically important.
One thing that we can all agree on is that an animal in captivity should still live its best life. It should be a life that protects and encourages instinctual behavior and reproduces an animal’s native environment as closely as possible. This makes wildlife habitat enrichment a key component of animal husbandry. It is both a challenge and a joy for zoo staff to come up with new ideas to keep animals engaged and interested.
Types of Wildlife Habitat Enrichment
Enrichment is the practice of “enriching” an animal’s life through environmental and behavioral activities that optimize the animal’s psychological and physiological well-being. This type of animal husbandry is relatively new; for as our understanding of animals and their emotional and behavioral needs grow, so does our ability to provide for them.
Enrichment is species-dependent and may include increasing the size of a paddock, adding water features to an enclosure, native or novel food sources, other animals as companions, or even audio that is native to the animal’s natural environment. The goal is to keep the animal from becoming bored or stressed.
Over the years, zoos have grown in size to provide better quality of life and is focused on enhancing “…the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being” (Shepherdson, 1998, p. 1). This not only includes room to move with sometimes acres devoted to a single animal, but also a stimulating environment that provides plenty of time out of view, trees and foliage to allow them to engage in natirve behavior and much more.
Enrichment activities may include olfactory enrichment (such as scent markers) that can help improve natural behaviour, enhance exploration, and reduce inactivity or aggression.
For example, the Honolulu Zoo recently allowed a domestic miniature horse, a sheep and a llama to spend the night safely grazing in the big cat enclosure. Having a new place to graze provided stimulation for the domestic animals, while having new scents to explore provided stimulation for the tigers when they were released the next morning. These simple activities can offer tremendous pleasure to different species.
No living creature wants to live in captivity. But, behavioral enrichment can assist them in adapting to a new type of life and those who are born into captivity are often even better adjusted.
Behavioral enrichment is largely species-specific. For a reptile, it may mean a water feature that helps them stay or cool, or a heated rock that lets them bask in the sun. For an elephant, it might be novel toys. Lions may enjoy their raw food frozen into a large popsicle that they can gnaw on hot days, while wolves may enjoy new and different scents or special toys that have been hidden throughout their enclosure.
Zoo enrichment toys range from simple cardboard boxes for the big cats to complex feeding puzzles, much as we would use for a dog in our home. Pigs enjoy rooting, while birds enjoy nesting. Behavioral enrichment supports an animal’s native instincts.
Cognitive enrichment is most often discussed as giving an animal control over their environment. This not only provides a critical part of emotional and mental development, but may also contribute a great deal to a life in captivity. This is a simple premise: we place more value on things we work for.
In a well-known experiment, one scientist Neuringer (1969) demonstrated that pigeons repeatedly pecked at a disc to receive food even when identical food was freely available. This is one of many studies that prove animals prefer to work for their food. By providing opportunities to work for their food, many species are more content in their surroundings.
Sensory enrichment includes activities that stimulate all of an animal’s senses. This includes visual, olfactory, auditory, taste and tactile senses.
The Hogle Zoo uses bubbles to stimulate different species. Nearly all zoos offer predators a carcass feed to help utilize their ability to tear meat and crunch bone. Zip lines with food help animals engage chasing instincts and feeding speciality treats from extra tall lures help elephants stretch all of their muscles. Puzzle feeders, novelty foods (such as new plants for herbivores), and other means are often used to stimulate taste.
Enrichment is only limited by the imagination of caretakers. As long as a toy, feature or concept is safe for the animal, it is fair game.This means adding novel ways of accessing foods, rearranging exhibit features, incorporating auditory stimulation and even using scent trails and toys.
Quality of Life
Saving a species is one thing, saving them in a way that doesn’t make them wish they were extinct is another. We have a moral obligation to not only preserve wildlife, but to make certain they are happy during their time with us. While happiness may be subject to interpretation, one thing is certain – zoo enrichment is the best chance we have of keeping them safe, content to be captive, and to be able to influence future generations.
When it all comes down to it, what are our expectations from zoos? Well, with luck, this will result in reduced hunting, improved conditions for animals in the wild and improved outlook for species survival. At worst, it will give us valuable insight into behavior and outcomes.
Enrichment helps resolve behavior issues, stop boredom, improve quality of life, and keep animals happy. Just as humans require these elements in their lives, so do animals.