Enrichment, when done properly, can be an effective way to engage both animals and visitors. At Southwick’s Zoo we occasionally allow zoo visitors to participate in an animal’s care through closely directed enrichment activities. These interactions not only enhance the lives of our animals, but also leave visitors with a memorable one of a kind experience. There are many examples of enrichment activities involving guests at Southwick’s Zoo, however I will highlight three: special events, Junior Zookeeping, and giraffe encounters.
We periodically hold special events during the season, “Mad About Monkey’s Day” for example, where visitors can assist keepers in preparing enrichment that is subsequently given to the animals. This generally involves very simple activities such as allowing patrons to fill puzzle feeders or foraging toys with treats provided by the keepers. Foods we use as treats may include fruit, vegetables, seeds, and raisins. However, peanuts, hay, and other potential allergens are avoided when working with the public. Visitors may also make “primate presents”, which are made by placing food treats into the center of several sheets of newspaper. The paper is folded around the food in 6”-8” squares and twine is used to secure the package.
While visitors are creating the enrichment items, zoo staff can capitalize on having a captive audience and take the opportunity to educate participants about the importance of enrichment, how zoo animals are cared for, or about conservation issues that may be plaguing a particular species. After the enrichment items are complete, keepers distribute them to one or more habitats and let the monkeys forage. It quickly becomes evident why foraging enrichment effectively stimulates naturalistic behaviors in most primates. Visitors are thrilled to watch an animal interacting with something they directly had a hand in preparing. They have also had an educational experience that is far more impactful than merely observing the animals or reading identification signs.
We also offer a Jr. Zookeeper program where children ages 6-12 are able to work with education staff to directly participate in some zookeeping activities. One aspect of this program is working on enrichment and learning about its importance in the care of captive animals. A limited number of Jr. Zookeepers are allowed to sign up for each session, as smaller group sizes allow for slightly more intensive enrichment.
For example, the Jr. Zookeepers made ‘scent boxes’ during a recent session. Tiny holes were drilled in the lids of small screw-top plastic containers. Spices including pepper, chicken seasoning, beef seasoning, oregano, fennel, cinnamon, mustard, rosemary, garlic and allspice were provided to the Jr. Zookeepers in order to design unique olfactory concoctions. A small amount of water was added to each mixture to create a paste which was smeared inside of the plastic containers which were then distributed amongst our reptile habitats. The animals were stimulated by the new scents, and the kids were extremely excited to watch the snakes and lizards investigate. Staff used this opportunity to talk with the Jr. Zookeepers about the importance of enrichment and interesting biology such as how some reptiles smell with the use of the Jacobson’s organ. Olfaction can be a difficult concept since it generally deals with invisible smells, but watching a tegu flick its tongue in an attempt to decipher a foreign smell can make the concept easier for younger visitors to understand.
Lastly, we offer staff supervised Giraffe Encounters on weekends. A limited number of visitors can purchase leafy browse to feed to our giraffes. The browse provides variation to their diet, and feeding them on the side of the habitat opposite from their feeder encourages them circulate through the entire exhibit. Additionally, giraffes prefer to feed from the browse than from their elevated feeding trough. Staff members are able to talk to the visitors about each individual giraffe, as well as provide extensive knowledge about the species and their natural habitat. Visitors enter a special fenced off area where they can get close enough to the giraffes to feed them by hand. This allows them to see the giraffes’ prehensile tongues in action! We often discuss many of the species’ unique adaptations that make them well evolved for savanna life such as a long neck, dexterous tongue, and the ability to survive on very little sleep. Giraffe Encounters always gather a crowd, and while our docents focus on the visitors participating in the encounter there is an education “splash zone”. Zoo visitors who are not actively involved in the encounter are still engrossed and learn about this unique species.
Visitor assisted enrichment serves the dual purpose of educating the public in a memorable hands-on way, as well as providing animals with much needed mental and physical stimulation. One of the primary goals of zoos is to ensure that we are teaching the public about the plight of endangered species, and allowing visitors to participate in enrichment activities can leave an indelible memory that may spur them to make the extra effort to support conservation.
-Timothy Cornwall, Education Coordinator