In a modern zoo, exhibits are built with the species specific requirements in mind, and designed as close to wild and natural. There are many exhibits that look extraordinarily beautiful on the surface, but often we, and the visiting public, don’t think about the animals thoughts and feelings towards their habitat. Whatever our opinions on an enclosure, visitors often only look at them superficially, rather than for what the animal actually requires behaviourally. It’s extremely easy to look at a large enclosure and think it has all the space it requires to keep a species enriched. However, we must remember these exhibits are home year round for our animals, so we need to make sure they’re consistently enriching environments for them.


A part of animal care in a zoo is providing enrichment. Enrichment encourages the animal to express their natural behaviours when done correctly. The big challenge we have to look at is how we determine what is enriching for the animals we work with. We are quick to say “the exhibit is big, they don’t need more”, “they have each other” or “the exhibit looks well designed”. We get overly comfortable with these points and it can often prevent us giving necessary stimulation to allow the animal to demonstrate their species appropriate behaviours.

How can we achieve these goals? 

Many zookeepers are not allowed to enter the exhibit when the animals are out, for safety reasons. This can directly make the enriching of these species more difficult. Working with potentially dangerous species in the zoo, it is required for the animals to be moved from one area of the enclosure to another, to provide enrichment. This can be time consuming and therefore, applying enrichment devices is not done as frequently as one would like. To overcome this, you can train the animal to shift on cue. Simply by having this behaviour, it not only makes the species easier to manage, but also increaseds welfare by allowing you to implement enrichment programmes. 

Teaching a shifting behaviour isn’t the hardest part, the hardest part is to keep the criteria and to get people to do the same thing all the time. We see in an established training programme that many problems come in to place due to criteria that doesn’t stay where it should be. The criteria for shifting could be: 

  • Respond to the first cue within 2 seconds
  • Go with the whole group
  • Let everybody eat 
  • Be in the other area in 5 seconds

And not:

  • After 5 cues you can go if you want
  • You can take your time
  • The group doesn’t all have to go
  • Take your time to move to the other side

If you would work the way where some keepers ask 5 cues while others only use 2 or some keepers wait 10 seconds while others wait 5 minutes for the animals to shift. If one keeper reinforces when 3 individuals move to the other exhibit while the other keeper only reinforces after they have all shifted or nothing at all, then we begin to be very grey with the animals and we can’t expect them to have a solid shifting behaviour. 

Holding criteria is important and we can reach this by proper communication to one another.

What about animals that do not interact with anything? 

Some animals seem to be smarter than others. We usually don’t like to say this because every animal is as intelligent as they need to be to survive. What we mean is the personality of the animal can create challenges. You have animals that problem solve better and faster than another individuals in the group. In Jerusalem Zoo for example, they have a group of 4 elephants that they enrich every day. They have a great cognitive enrichment box, where the animal has to slide open a part that is connected to a spring to be able to slide another part open to then get their reinforcement. So far only 1 of the elephants has figured out how this works. 

Does this mean that the other 3 are less intelligent? No, of course not. 

Puzzle box for the asian elephants at Jerusalem Zoo

Did you know you can teach animals problem solving skills through enrichment? If you have a puzzle box the animal has to solve, you can gradually make this harder and harder. The whole idea is that the animal figures out themselves how to solve this challenge with more successive trials than errors. You don’t want the animal to become uninterested. Slowly adding difficulty helps the animal to use it’s problem solving skills – training for enrichment. 

You can also train animals to recall and be conditioned to transport crates to facilitate enclosure rotations. This will allow you to, where possible, bring the animals to new and interesting areas, old or new enclosures, encounter areas, etc. This will also strengthen your recall and boxing behaviours by adding the unfamiliar environments.

Another alternative is to introduce prey species to predator species enclosures. Boxing and shifting are important behaviours as we don’t want the two to meet. Often smaller prey species are suitable to be transported. These animals often leave scent markings that can help encourage species specific hunting behaviours or at the very least olfactory stimulation for both species! There is always a potential disease transfer risk so it is advised to only do this with healthy animals.

Various enclosure rotations at ZSL London Zoo

You want to encourage a tiger to climb and build their muscles? Add a straw bag to a pole 1.5 meters above the ground. Once the tiger is successful you can add another bag. Extend the height slowly, after each successful attempt and this way you have a tiger that climbs and has to give more effort to get the bag, working out even more. You can do the same with a balance board. 

There are plenty of ideas out there but what is important to understand is for the easy application of enrichment, you often need animals to shift or box reliably. You need to understand the species capabilities and you need to understand the individuals understanding of the cognitive challenges provided. 

Good luck and enrich yourself by being creative!

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!

1 Comment

Better Understanding Of Social Enrichment And Enriching Social Groups – ZOOSnippets · February 2, 2021 at 19:09

[…] is providing and cognitive challenges as we humans create for the animal. Wild Enrichment and Zoospensefull extensively describe how animal training can function as an enrichment tool. With some animals, […]

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