Most zookeepers today do enrichment and animal training on a regular basis. Nowadays, they are seen as standard husbandry practice. Many facilities have well-thought out enrichment and training programs. These programs have a main goal to improve the welfare of animals under human care. As Peter already wrote: “Everything we do should be a welfare benefit to the animal“. And it is precisely that! But when we have a closer look at this phrase, I see something really important. “Everything we do…” calls for an integrated approach on how we care for our animals. Within this approach, we also need to integrate our enrichment and training programs, which now most often are two separate and sometimes even unrelated plans. But first, let us take a step back and look at the fundamentals.
Behavioural Management to Promote Behavioural Welfare
When we look at our animals, as individuals or as a group, we have to consider one important matter. We have to ensure that in our 10 or 12 hours of work that the animals’ behavioural welfare is at the highest level possible. In other words, when we leave the facility after a day of work, the animals are still there, 24 hours a day for seven days a week. Not only that, animals have a natural activity budget, it would be strange if we only stimulate them for the 12 hours that we are at the facility, right? In the same way, when we look at training sessions with animals, these sessions will only contain 30 minutes tops of their 1440 minutes in a day. And what have we provided for them for the rest of the 1410 minutes? It is time to combine environmental enrichment, animal training, feeding moments and enclosure design together into one approach.
First, let’s go back and remind ourselves of the phrase: “Everything we do should be a welfare benefit to the animal”. That should be the title of our 24/7 behavioural management plan. Within this plan, we have multiple tools to achieve the highest possible (behavioural) welfare. For ease, let’s break them apart.
Enrichment In the “Old Days”
“the greatest possibility for improvement in our provision for captive primates lies with the invention and installation of apparatus which can be used for play or work”Robert Yerkes, 1925
Robert Yerkes already wrote in 1925 that “the greatest possibility for improvement in our provision for captive primates lies with the invention and installation of apparatus which can be used for play or work”. This was soon translated, and often still is, that when you give animals some toys, you enrich them. Things that are put in the exhibit to combat negative behaviours or environments. This is then mainly done with animals that we know have sub-optimal enclosures or some degree of behavioural problems. This is categorised as a reactive enrichment strategy. All kinds of standalone enrichment devices were used to stimulate certain behaviours to improve animal welfare. Over the years, our understanding improved, and we are now looking more and more to stimulate species-specific behavioural enrichment. This proactive enrichment approach is more aimed at providing animal choice and power over its own environment. We make very well-thought through plans on how to stimulate the appropriate behaviour, and in the right context, of the animal to proactively prevent behavioural problems or affected animal welfare.
When Is Something Enrichment?
There is a huge discussion on whether some aspects of animal care counts as enrichment or are should be standard parts of high animal welfare. For example animal training or good feeding practice. But then, let’s first consider what enrichment actually is. A very well and extensive definition is provided by Valerie Hare (1999): “Environmental enrichment is a process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their behavioural biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioural choices to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviours and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare”. Some think that giving browse is enriching to animals, stimulating their natural foraging and feeding behaviours. Others believe this is just optimal feeding practice and shouldn’t count it as enrichment.
I often hear the same with animal training. Is it a form of social enrichment with human-animal interaction or even does it promote choice and power to animals in their own care and being? Or does training impede species-specific behaviours of an animal, as the definition is stated? You have to consider that everything we do as caregivers and animal trainers influences the behaviour of an animal. So the bottom line is: does it really matter if what you do is called enrichment or not? Does this change anything in the outcome of what you are trying to achieve? We have to shift our focus more to behavioural welfare of animals in our daily care. And that means we need to take a look at how to combine all these expertise, like enrichment and training, to formulate a behavioural management plan.
Even when enrichment overlaps with many other areas that influence behaviour, this power and effectiveness of this tool must not be underestimated. I know that there are people that strongly believe in allowing the animal to just do their thing. In some cases, this is perfectly fine. But because we take care of animals living in enclosed spaces with often limited stimulation and challenges, most animals will get bored or experience a lack of control over their environment and lead to stereotypies. With the use of enrichment devices, we can improve our feeding practices and stimulate exploratory behaviour. However, environmental enrichment is much more than the frequent use of toys and food puzzles. Cooperative enrichment is interesting to stimulate social interaction between conspecifics. Olfactory and natural enrichment is beneficial to many animals, where scent plays an essential role in territory and communication-related behaviour. Enrichment is a perfect tool to fill bring stimulation and challenges to an animals’ day, and with the current technology and creativity also outside working hours. Timed devices that can spray scent into different parts of the enclosures, automated doors that give access randomly to certain areas after closing time and what about timed feeders? There are endless possibilities to stimulate behaviours within the 24-hours of an animals’ life, as long as you consider their natural activity budget. I think only creativity is the limiting factor here.
One of the major challenges of managing animals under human care, is the time they spend on foraging behaviours when you compare them to their wild conspecifics. Because of pellet food and cultivated fruits and vegetables, but also the lack of travelling, searching and hunting for food, animals spend almost no time on foraging and feeding behaviours. When you see that many wild animals spend 25% to 50% of their day on foraging, and compare that to captive animals, we surely see there is some work for us to do. We have to extend and prolong the foraging time of animals, and therefore we need to evaluate our feeding methods and items. Topics that include, are contra-freeloading, chopping of food, evaluating food-based enrichment and observation on time spent on feeding/foraging behaviour. These topics need to be included in the behavioural management plan of the species.
Luckily this is already a common practice, but the main goal of any animal training plan should have a welfare benefit to the animal. For example, animal training can add control to situations when we require an animal to complete a task for example shifting, so we can access some parts of the enclosure, or give them medical care with as little stress as possible.
Animal training can also be very beneficial to mental stimulation in an under stimulating environment. This will certainly be the case for animals with a higher level of cognitive intelligence. However, when we are training animals, we have to consider what influence it has on its expectations before, after, and when we are not training the animal. Here, enrichment can be a perfect tool to help in ‘down time’.
Furthermore, enclosure design has a tremendous impact on the possibilities and stimulation of performing behaviours. Think of the complexity of enclosures, but also its’ dynamic features. Dynamic features can be exhibit rotation, random accessibility of certain areas, and facilitating the implementation of the above practices like training and enrichment. Well-designed off-exhibit holding areas can be very beneficial to implement good training practices. But enriching features like a complex and interchangeable climbing structure for primates, for example, are also important to consider. Remember that an enclosure is not something static, but can also be dynamically growing with the needs of the animal. Features can be added at a later stage to make it more suitable for the animal, but are important to include in a behavioural management plan as well.
How Are You Going to Improve Animals’ Lives?
I’m increasingly convinced that we need a one plan approach to managing and improving the behavioural welfare of animals in our care. That means greater collaboration between different experts and different fields of expertise. Zookeepers, animals trainers, enrichment coordinators, enclosure designers, nutritionists and management teams have to come together to develop this integrated behavioural management. Are you ready to improve the animals’ lives?