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Animal Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is the process of providing stimulating environments for Zoo animals in order for them to demonstrate their species-typical behavior, to allow them exercise control or choice over their environment, and to enhance their well-being.

Enrichment includes the design of stimulating and naturalistic enclosures, the housing of appropriate social groups in zoos, and the introduction of objects, sounds, smells or other stimuli in the animal’s environment.

Environmental enrichment is just as critical to Zoo animal welfare as nutrition and veterinary medicine. At the National Zoo, enrichment is an integral part of the daily care of the species in our collection.

Enrichment is provided in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Exhibit design: provides a variety of substrates, levels, and complexities.
  • Training: interaction with the keeper and proper training allows an animal to choose to participate. This is also useful in gaining the animal's trust and allows the keeper close, visual observations of that animal.
  • Olfactory: a keeper can introduce natural predator or prey scents, in addition to novel smells or pheromone scents.
  • Auditory: taped sounds or vocalizations can simulate things that an animal may hear in the wild.
  • Food related: this is the most widely used form of enrichment. Keepers can present food in a variety of ways such as in a simple puzzle feeder, hidden throughout the enclosure, scattered about the enclosure, or buried in a substrate. To get the food, the animal must use natural foraging behaviors and/or mentally solve the puzzle.
  • Novel objects: various items placed in an animal’s enclosure allow the animal to mimic behaviors exhibited in the wild or could challenge them. These items could include burlap bags, sheets, boomer balls, chew toys, or a hammock.

    Often, novel objects will be combined with food related enrichment. For example, burlap bags may be filled with hay and treats and tied closed. The animal would then have to get into the bag and sort through the hay to get to the treats.

  • Research: Participation in a research projects offers mental stimulation. (i.e., foraging skills research with giant pandas, cognitive research with orangutans)