Written by Willow Sedam, Animal Husbandry Staff
Mindful Mondays: Animal Enrichment
Just like us, animals can get bored. Have you ever been bored stuck inside on a rainy day? Imagine if you lived your entire life in your house – many animals kept in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and even our own homes do spend their whole lives in one place. And without proper enrichment, animals can get bored quickly!
So, what is enrichment?
Behavioral, or environmental, enrichment, is anything that makes an animal’s life more interesting! It could be training a dog to sit and stay, or giving an octopus a complex puzzle to solve. It can be rearranging an animal’s cage for a change of scenery, or introducing new and exciting sounds or scents to them.
At the museum, we have our own animals – from black-footed ferrets to tree frogs – who all need enrichment. But enrichment comes in all different shapes and sizes!
Our colony of domesticated fancy rats are smart, omnivorous foragers, and need lots to do to keep their brains working. One day, they might get a new toy or a hiding place like a tunnel or wicker ball in their enclosure. The next, they might get peanuts hidden inside of cardboard tubes that they have to sniff out and chew open to get to. One of the keys to enrichment is variability – if an animal gets the same kind of enrichment at the same time every day or week, the novelty can wear off. Switching up enrichment styles and schedules is as important as the enrichment itself!
But enrichment isn’t one size fits all. Every animal is different, and so are the things we give them to keep them interested and excited.
The museum’s ornate box turtle, Tara, isn’t very good at sniffing out treats or chewing open cardboard boxes, so her enrichment takes a different form. She gets walks – inside the museum when the weather is cold, and out in the big backyard when it’s warmer. She loves her walks, and spends her outdoors time digging, hunting ants, and finding rocks to carry around in her beak. And even Tara likes treats – though instead of peanuts, she gets mealworms, which she chases down and gobbles up! To figure out what kind of enrichment an animal needs, we have to think about what our animals would be doing in the wild; Tara is actually a Colorado native, so spending time foraging in the Big Backyard is the perfect enrichment activity for her.
But what happens when animals don’t get the enrichment they need? Like us, bored animals can become frustrated, restless, or even depressed. They can get lethargic and low-energy, pick fights with other animals in the same cage, or pace the same path over and over again. Enrichment is important for animals of all shapes and sizes, from lions and tigers to little turtles like Tara.
Want to try giving your pet enrichment? There are lots of different ways to, and you might already be doing it without realizing! Training your dog to sit and stay, or playing catch-the-string with your cat are some easy ways to get your pet’s mind and body active. You could also introduce your pets to new (pet-safe) foods, or interesting and novel scents. Or, rearrange their cage, move their bed, and hide their toys in new places around the house. You can even make your own puzzle feeder: take a shallow box, cut holes of various sizes in the top, and sprinkle in some treats. See how your pet thinks through the problem to get to its prize – does it fish the treats out with a paw, shake the box until they fall out, or tear it open to get to the food?
There are tons of different fun enrichment projects you and your pet can work on together – so next time you’re feeling bored, consider designing a new toy for your furry (or slimy, scaly, or feathered) friend. You just might discover that it’s just as enriching for you as it is for them!
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We look forward to welcoming you to FCMoD to experience this amazing exhibit!