H ave you ever wandered around the Santa Barbara Zoo and seen some cardboard, wood shavings, or twine in an exhibit, and wondered what they were doing there?

Well, these are the leftovers of special animal toys used to give the animals at the Zoo something called behavioral enrichment. Whether it’s a tiny poison dart frog or a giant elephant, every animal at the Zoo gets enrichment each and every day. Keeping the animals entertained and engaged is one way that we provide full and exciting lives for all our Zoo residents. Putting something new in their homes to sniff, taste, and tear apart helps to keep them thinking and moving.

Frogs and toads may get a piece of PVC pipe filled with moss, while the otters get fish-sicles (ice cubes with chunks of fish frozen inside). Pepe the armadillo gets to dig in the grass around the Zoo, while the gorillas search for their breakfast inside burlap sacks. Using food is a great way to get the animals to interact with new things in their environment.

Keeping the animals entertained and engaged is one way that we provide full and exciting lives for all our Zoo residents.

Enrichment isn’t just fun for the animals… Zoo campers love it too! Jr. Zookeeper campers enjoy creating enrichment for the Zoo’s largest residents, Asian elephants Sujatha and Little Mac. In the wild, elephants spend much of their time searching for food, and our campers help to ensure Sujatha and Little Mac get to do the same.

In the morning, campers hide the elephant’s food inside cardboard boxes, which are then partially buried for the elephants to find. They also make elephant piñatas by filling barrels with produce and hanging them in the exhibit. Stretching up to grab overhead snacks helps strengthen the elephants’ necks and shoulders (it’s like elephant yoga!), and searching for hidden food encourages them to use their strong sense of smell.

Zoo campers love creating enrichment too! Ten-year-old Cole told me, “This was the first time I got to make enrichment for the elephants. It was one of the coolest things of my whole life. I’m really glad I’ve come to Zoo Camp for so long that now I get to do cool things like this. The keepers even let me use all their equipment and lift up the elephants’ food buckets. It made me really happy to see them rip their boxes apart. I could tell they liked it a whole lot!”

Next time you visit the Zoo, see if you can spot all of the unique toys!

Stacey Brizeno

About Stacey Brizeno

Stacey Brizeno, Education Coordinator, runs the Zoo's award-winning Zoo Camp program.

500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103