Enrichment: Fun For Everyone

Panda Bai Yun manipulates an enrichment item with her bamboo.

Enrichment is a big part of what keepers do at most zoos these days. But did you know that it isn’t just the keepers who are involved in making enrichment opportunities for our animals? 

Determining the type of enrichment that an animal will get is a very big process. Kym Nelson mentioned in a past blog post that enrichment needs to be approved, and that is very true (see New View of Enrichment). So how does it work? 

First, the keeper comes up with an idea. That idea needs to fulfill various criteria: is this an item this species would use? Will it cause friction among the group if there is more than one animal? What behavior is the enrichment meant to encourage? Is it store-bought or will it need to be made? If so, what materials are involved? 

Next, the keeper fills out a form with their enrichment idea; the idea is then considered and approved by supervisors, managers, a staff nutritionist, and veterinarians to assure that whatever we offer each animal is appropriate for that animal. Once the supervisor and manager determine the item is appropriate then the nutritionist and veterinarian need to make sure the item is okay. Does it involve food? How will the item be presented? Will it be harmful? What are the item limitations? What are the protocols that need to be followed? 

Volunteers put together a bamboo climbing structure.

After the requested enrichment has reached this stage, it needs to be obtained or built. This is where a whole new team of people become involved. We have Construction & Maintenance Department staff who assist with building some of the more complicated items such as hammocks made of donated fire hoses, chutes, and climbing structures, and more. There are enrichment volunteers who help build nylon hammocks, cardboard box animals, bamboo feeders, hay beds, and more. There is the Development Department staff who help raise money to purchase items and tools to make enrichment through the Animal Care Wish List and Adopt an Animal programs. There’s the Horticulture Department that saves logs, bamboo, palm fronds, pine cones, and other green items from around Zoo and Safari Park grounds that keepers and animals can use. 

Who might enjoy this cardboard enrichment animal?

And sometimes there’s that call to staff for different scents or items. “Don’t like that old bottle of perfume? The cats will love it!” “Bird and reptile keepers, do you have any extra cardboard tubes your crickets came in that you don’t need any more? The meerkats can use that!” It’s ultimate recycling! 

We also have local companies that donate items. Café Moto always saves the coffee burlap bags for our use; they make great beds and super-hero capes for orangutans and bonobos. And the fire stations give us their old hoses to make hammocks and fire hose balls. 

We have to remember that it’s not just the keepers who come up with enrichment ideas—other people do, too. Sometimes, as keepers, we get in a “rut” and can’t think of something new we can do for the animals in our care. That’s when it’s good to talk with the people around us and with keepers from other institutions, and research ideas on the Internet or enrichment listserve, a place where animal care professionals share ideas about enrichment (yes, this thing exists!.) 

So you see, enrichment doesn’t just involve a few people; it involves everyone, which is always fun! 

Yvette Kemp is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Koalapalooza: Vets Share, Too!  

Update: Panda fans are helping raise money to rent a crane to place new climbing structures and trees in the panda exhibit. If you’d like to contribute, visit the Zoo’s September Wish List and scroll down to the third item on the list: “Crane Rental for Panda Enrichment.”

RELATED POSTS