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Animal Enrichment

Elephants playing with palm frond

Animals in the wild spend most of their active hours searching for food - or trying to avoid becoming food themselves.

As zoo animals don't have those stresses, the Santa Barbara Zoo and other AZA-accredited zoos have developed behavioral "enrichment" programs to keep our animals active, alert, challenged, and stimulated by their environments.

Enrichment begins with careful exhibit design. Naturalistic environments allow primates to swing, burrowing animals a place to dig, and tree climbers high places to perch. Our elephant exhibit, for example, includes a specially designed Enrichment Wall with different cubbyholes where the staff place food for Suzie and Little Mac, and where we can also generate novel sounds for them to hear.

Keepers regularly develop new activities to keep animals mentally stimulated. This includes the obvious: items for the animals to "play" with (or sometimes destroy). You may have noticed that we try to keep enrichment items on exhibit as naturalistic as possible, and therefore limit the use of brightly colored objects, or human-manufactured items. We instead focus on bones, wooden branches and logs, and scents which are a great experience for the animals but aren't easily detected by our guests.

Speaking of scents... many animals interpret their world through their noses, so olfactory stimulation is a big part of enrichment. Manufactured scents like colognes or essences are sprayed in virtually every exhibit, to create high interest for the animals. The scents range from pleasant fruity scents, to noxious ones such as "Big Cheese" (you have to smell it to believe it!). It is just as enriching for an animal to smell something "bad" as it is to smell something "good". Even the scent of a predator or dominant individual of the same species can provide excellent enrichment.

Gorilla Eating a Pumpkin

The higher the level of intelligence of the animal, the greater the variety and frequency of stimulation offered. Food items are hidden throughout the Western lowland gorillas' exhibit to encourage natural foraging behaviors. And additional enrichment is given a few times during the day.

Training is used in tandem with enrichment, not only to stimulate the animals, but to encourage certain behaviors - like getting a lion to step onto a scale or having a giant anteater hold still for an ultrasound.

We want to keep the animals' lives interesting and different. The same enrichment activity, if offered every day, it would soon lose its appeal. Different activities are provided randomly and intermittently, with other stimuli between.

Enrichment programs are not just a "good idea," they are required for AZA accreditation and are proven to help prevent stress, boredom, and increase welfare in captive animals. It's good animal husbandry and a required part of what keepers do each and every day.

Our animals' enrichment items don't last forever, so we always have a need to replace them. Shop our wish list at amazon.com if you would like to donate some items to our animals. You may also make a monetary donation for enrichment items. We thank you for your support!

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