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Enrichment for Primates

Every species of animal requires enrichment that is adapted to their particular behavioral characteristics or personality. These characteristics can be identified through observation and research of species in the wild and in zoos.

Zoo animals also have individual personalities and abilities. Whether a primate is interacting with its enclosure, a toy/food stimulus, or is sleeping, there are many ways that the lives of these animals can be enriched. Because there is significant interest in the cognitive abilities of gorillas and orangutans participate in a number of ongoing research projects, which also offer mental stimulation.

At the National Zoo, enrichment items are approved through the exhibit curator and veterinarian and nutritionist. The Primate Program provides enrichment to all of the species in the unit. There are many types of enrichment available. Some are tried and true, and some the result of creative keepers.

Most enrichment items fall into one of four categories: structural, social, object, and food. Each of these is incorporated into the Zoo’s comprehensive primate enrichment program in order to meet the needs of our animals.

Structural Enrichment

Structural enrichment is intended to increase the amount of usable space in an enclosure, as well as providing more choices to the animals of where to spend their time. Structures such as artificial trees, platforms, hammocks, hanging ropes and fire hoses provide opportunities to climb, swing and nest high above the ground as many primates would in the wild.

Social Enrichment

Social enrichment applies to the manner in which our primates are housed, as well as to the activities they participate in with animal care staff. Housing primates in appropriate social situations is one of the most significant ways to enrich their lives. Primates have active minds and complex social relationships, and companionship provides a constant source of stimulation. The keepers also provide social enrichment by engaging in games of chase, tickle, grooming, or training sessions with the primates to engage them as well as strengthen social bonds.

Object Enrichment

Object enrichment provides our primates with novel items to explore and manipulate. These items are changed daily to insure variation and prevent boredom. Food enrichment provides variation in food and how it is presented. Often object and food enrichment go hand in hand.

Enrichment Items

Below are many examples of the types of enrichment that visitors may see the primates interacting with in their enclosures.

  • Plastic spools, crates, and spray bottles
  • Large and small plastic balls, often with food hidden inside
  • Plastic barrels and trash cans
  • Rubber tubs filled with bubbles or floating fruit
  • Sheets, blankets, and burlap sacs
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Craft paper
  • Plastic mirrors
  • Paint and paintbrushes (under keeper supervision)
  • Frozen or baked fruit and veggies
  • Coconuts
  • Foraging—keepers scatter food items throughout enclosures or yard to encourage animals to search for the food as they would in the wild. Often food is buried in hay, hidden in pillowcases, or covered by toys. Forage items include diced fruits and veggies, popcorn, jungle mix, nuts, or sunflower seeds.
  • Raisin boards—pieces of wood or decking material with small holes drilled. Each hole is stuffed with raisin and requires tool use to extract.
  • Piñatas
  • Fruitsicles—diluted juice with fruit pieces frozen inside
  • Fruit kabobs
  • Treat tubes—metal treat tubes are attached to perforated panels on the enclosure mesh and filled with various liquid foods such as sugar-free syrup, ketchup, mustard, or puréed fruit. The animals use hay or browse to fish the food out of the tubes.
  • Puzzle feeders, which challenge the primates to use their tool-use and/or problem-solving skills

The Zoo sometimes celebrates birthdays and holidays with the apes. These special days include decorations, wrapped presents, special food treats, and extra enrichment opportunities throughout the day.