What exactly is enrichment and how is it used in the San Diego Zoo’s overall animal care program? This is a question that is asked more frequently than in the past. The general definition of enrichment is to make fuller, more meaningful, or more rewarding. This has a direct correlation to enhancing the quality of life for the primates in our care. Enrichment at the Zoo is equal in value to the provision of food, water, and shelter. Keepers spend many hours figuring out ways to stimulate the animals in our care, both mentally and physically. One of the biggest challenges is providing the monkey or ape with something that is safe and indestructible!
Orangutans are known for their independent thinking capabilities. If there is a way to dismantle or destroy something, they will find it. But just this process is stimulating! Since orangutans are arboreal, we try to provide items that we can freely hang from the climbing structures inside their habitat, simulating the natural movement of branches. Large plastic disks, balls, and other objects can be stuffed with plant material or novel food items like cereal, sunflower seeds, hot sauce, and spices. These enrichment items are then secured to the climbing structure with hardware and rope. We have to be diligent about making sure the nuts and bolts are very tight, otherwise one of our more mischievous orangutans (I didn’t want to name names, but…Karen) will be dismantling the apparatus within moments!
Hammocks are always a favored piece of furniture for most primates. They use them as storage units, to lounge in, and play on. And, for the industrious species, unravel, unweave, and retie with their own unique knot-tying skills!
The black mangabeys, which can be found in the Zoo’s Lost Forest, are very adept at manipulating puzzle feeders that are provided for them inside their “bedrooms.” Opposable thumbs come in handy when attempting to pull raisins out of tiny holes on a board or moving peanuts through a maze mounted to their enclosure. Hanging mirrors are also a novel way to spy on your neighbors down the hall! I have seen monkeys hold the mirrors (with safety glass) and angle them just right to get a good look at me or one of their conspecifics in the next room!
Primates are problem solvers. They use this skill every day in their natural environments as well as in their habitats at the Zoo. With the help of the Zoo’s March Wish List, we can provide opportunities to encourage stimulation for exploration, foraging, problem solving, and the senses. Wish List items include paper streamers for the bonobos, flowering shrubs for our colobus monkeys, and mirrors for Francois’ langurs,
Kim Livingstone is a lead primate keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Gorilla Born at the San Diego Zoo.