Small Mammal House keepers provide the animals with enrichment—enclosures, socialization, objects, sounds, smells and other stimuli—to enhance their well-being and give them an outlet to demonstrate their species-typical behaviors. An exhibit’s design is carefully and deliberately planned to provide physically and mentally stimulating toys, activities and environments for the Zoo’s animals. Each enrichment is tailored to give an animal the opportunity to use its natural behaviors in novel and exciting ways.
At the Small Mammal House, enclosures were designed to mimic the animals’ wild habitats and encourage natural foraging and social behaviors. Every branch, vine, and stone was purposefully placed by keepers to encourage animals to explore their enclosures. Keepers will often scatter and hide food throughout the exhibits or in puzzle feeders to encourage foraging and problem-solving.
Trees within exhibits for arboreal animals, for example, include branches for climbing. Just like real trees, they’re designed to have a little bit of give (instead of being immobile). Chunky mulch not only resembles the forest floor visually, but allows mealworms to burrow down into it, where mongooses and other insect eaters can forage for them. The meerkats’ rocky exhibit features hilly areas so that the animals can carry out their instinctive guarding behavior.
In addition to environmental enrichment, many animals participate in training sessions. This social enrichment provides an animal with exercise and mental stimulation while reinforcing the relationship between an animal and his/her keeper. A prehensile-tailed porcupine female was trained to participate in ultrasounds, which enabled animal care staff to provide her with prenatal care and prepare for the porcupette’s birth.
Many of the Zoo's animals paint for enrichment, which stimulates their visual, tactile and olfactory senses. Using non-toxic, water-based paint, small mammals create one-of-a-kind works of art. With more than 30 different species, there are literally dozens of different ways to create a painting. Check out a video of the three-banded armadillo using its feet to paint. In addition to tactile stimulation, painting provides social interaction with a keeper. As with any enrichment activity, an animal can either choose to participate or not.