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Animal Enrichment

What is enrichment?

Enrichment gives animals a creative outlet for physical activity and mental exercise, as well as choice and control over how they spend their time. Examples of enrichment include puzzle feeders that encourage animals to forage for food, climbing structures that enhance habitats, and training sessions where animals can interact with keepers.

Enrichment keeps an animal's day interesting and is just as essential to animal welfare as nutrition and veterinary care.

Types of Enrichment

Amazonia rainforest exhibit


Changing the environment creates a novel experience for animals. Adding trees, vines, and perching areas or using different substrates, such as sand, mulch, or grass can entice animals to navigate their habitats in new ways. Keepers can also provide options for dens and different types of bedding.

Nigerian dwarf goat fiesta jumps over an agility hurdle.


Helping animals exercise their minds is as important as giving them space to run, jump and climb. Training sessions and research projects are two types of cognitive enrichment that allow animals to problem-solve, learn and try new activities. Past research has included studies on orangutan memory, how lizards see color, and how giant pandas forage. Training often lets animals participate in their own medical care, like learning to step onto a scale.

African lion Luke rubs his head against a tree with scent enrichment


Scents and sounds encourage animals explore their habitats. Natural predator or prey scents and new smells, such as spices or diluted perfumes, can be sprinkled on the ground or sprayed on a log for an animal to investigate. Playing recorded sounds, like insect activity and bird calls, can simulate the sounds of a habitat in the wild.

Collared lemurs Beemer (left) and Bentley (right) play with a puzzle feeder toy.


Food can be placed in a puzzle feeder, hidden, frozen in ice treats, buried, or scattered throughout an animal's habitat. Making food part of daily enrichment encourages zoo animals to forage and work for their meals, just as their wild counterparts do.

a tiger pulls on a rope connected to a large rubber ball


Toys can include burlap bags, sheets, boomer balls, kongs, chew toys, hammocks and more. Often, toys and food are combined to create new, enriching activities for animals.

Enrichment and Training Stories

  • Hereford cow willow sticks out her tongue to touch a tennis ball at the end of a dowel during a training session.
    Meet our moo-velous cattle: Holstein Magnolia (a.k.a. Maggie) and Hereford Willow! These charming cows are also incredibly intelligent—they have learned medical behaviors that enable our animal care team to closely monitor their health. 
  • Ring-tailed lemurs Tom Petty (left) and Birch hold onto a PVC "t-stand" in their outdoor yard.
    At Lemur Island, school is always in session for our ring-tailed and black-and-white ruffed residents. Learn how primate keeper Lynne McMahan has trained the lemurs to voluntarily participate in awake radiographs!
  • Asian elephant Nhi Linh is pictured standing next to a cube puzzle feeder.
    Tune in to the ele-FUN! Watch our 9-year-old Asian elephant, Nhi Linh, play with a weeble-wobble enrichment toy.
  • Female Lions Naba, Shera and Amahle
    As animals age, they have more health care needs. Fortunately, our lions are eager to participate in training that helps us care for them!
  • A Guam rail (bird) stands on a small scale to be weighed
    Keepers can learn a lot about an animal’s needs just by monitoring its weight. But how do you weigh a wiggly ferret or get a full-grown elephant onto a scale? Find out in this update from primate keeper Erin Stromberg.
  • A black-and-white ruffed lemur holds onto a tree branch with one paw and a juice feeder made of a pvc cap with juice-filled tubes with the other
    If you have visited the Zoo during the summer, then you know it can get hot, muggy and buggy here in Washington, D.C.! Find out how keepers use enrichment to help animals stay cool in the heat.
  • A male Asian elephant, named Spike, with large white tusks and a long trunk stands outside in the sun near a pool of water at the Smithsonian's National Zoo
    How do animal keepers take a blood sample from an elephant or examine a big cat's teeth? Find out how training helps keepers care for animals that they can't share a physical space with in this update.
  • A baby leaf-tailed gecko sitting on a leaf laps up medicine from a syringe with its tongue
    From salamanders to siamangs, prairie dogs to pandas, and everything in between, all Zoo animals receive veterinary care. Often, that means an animal needs to take medicine. Find out how keepers and veterinarians administer medicine in this update.
  • A dama gazelle with long legs, a slender neck and short, curved horns grazes in a grassy yard on a sunny day
    Tracking an animal's weight is an important part of animal care, but gazelles are known to be flighty and nervous. So, how do keepers convince them to step onto a scale? Find out in this update from keeper Sarah Rezac.
  • Asian elephants Bozie and Shanthi. Bozie, on the left, uses her trunk to touch Shanthi's face.
    The Zoo cares for five female Asian elephants from a few different family groups. Luckily, there are a few things that keepers can do to encourage them to build positive relationships. Learn more in this update from keeper Kayleigh Sullivan.
  • A hoofed animal, called a Grevy's zebra, with black and white stripes, slender legs, large ears, a thick mane and a long tail stands on grass-covered rocks in the sun
    How do keepers safely care for an 850-pound Grevy's zebra? By incorporating training into his everyday routine. Find out more in this update from animal keeper Regina Bakely.