Enrichment program

Why Environmental Enrichment is important for Captive Animals

If you’ve ever visited a zoo or animal sanctuary, you’ve probably witnessed environmental enrichment without even noticing it.

Environmental enrichment research began in the 1920s when Robert Yerkes, a psychobiologist, started studying the welfare of captive primates.  Since then, there has been ongoing research on how to best stimulate captive animals and make captive environments as similar to wild environments as possible.

Every zoo and sanctuary are encouraged to participate in environmental enrichment, and most of them do.  In order for a zoo to be accredited in the US, they have to have an enrichment program.

Unfortunately, in many instances, the only animals who receive environmental enrichment at zoos are the most popular animals like tigers.  Less popular animals like snakes don’t receive as much environmental enrichment as they should.

Luckily, there is a strong push within the community to enrich every animal’s environment.

Ultimately, a captive animal can only have as good of a life as the humans taking care of it give it.  It is our moral and ethical responsibility to give captive animals a good life and create an environment as similar to their natural one as possible.

What is Environmental Enrichment?

Before we can discuss why environmental enrichment is important for captive animals, it is important to understand what it is.

The goal of environmental enrichment is to alter a captive animal’s behavior, so it mimics the behavior of a wild animal.

Encouraging natural behaviors and providing captive animals with an environment similar to their natural one helps improve or maintain an animal’s mental and physical health.

There are five different categories of environment enrichment:

  • Social
  • Cognitive
  • Psychical habitat
  • Sensory
  • Food

Each category plays a role in enhancing an animal’s life, and the type of enrichment given to each animal should depend on what their natural behaviors and environment are.

A lot of thought should be put into enriching an environment.  There should be significant planning, research, and revisions before any enrichments are introduced to an animal.

Once an enrichment has been introduced, the animal needs to be observed and changes should be made to the enrichment depending on how the animal interacts with it.

How Animals Benefit from Environmental Enrichment

Many captive animals experience boredom and stress.  They start showing unnatural repetitive behaviors like pacing and engage in potentially harmful activities.

Environmental enrichment has been proven to motivate animals to engage in species-appropriate behavior, decrease stress, and encourage positive social interaction between animals.  It is also thought to help increase an animal’s mental health and enjoyment of life.

Proper environmental enhancement has also been show to improve an animal’s health because they tend to be more active than an animal without environmental enhancement.

Environmental Enrichment for House Pets

Your pet can benefit from environmental enrichment just as much as an animal living in a zoo or sanctuary.

The most common issue with house pets is they get bored and exhibit undesirable behaviors such as barking and scratching.

As their owner, it is your responsibility to keep your pet stimulated and active.

A few easy ways you can enhance your pet’s environment are:

  • Hide your dog’s favorite toys around the house
  • Put a treat inside one of their favorite toys
  • Give your dog a block of ice with a frozen treat inside
  • Put scratching posts around your house for your cat

When you’re first enriching your pet’s environment, be sure you’re there to supervise and ensure they aren’t developing a new behavior problem such as chewing the wall or carpet where a treat was previously hidden.

How Animal Caregivers Benefit from Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is primarily for the welfare of the animals, but caregivers benefit from it to.  Animal caregivers love animals, and they don’t want to see them exhibit signs of anxiety, boredom, or depression.

Environmental enrichment has been shown to deepen the bond between an animal and its caregiver.

Additionally, seeing how animals interact with the new environmental enrichment helps caregivers better understand the animal and help them develop new enrichment ideas in the future.

How Zoo and Sanctuary Visitors Benefit from Environmental Enrichment

Lastly, anybody who visits a zoo or sanctuary benefits from environmental enrichment.  Visitors don’t want to see animals that are stressed and anxious.  They want to see animals that are lively, healthy, and energetic.

Environmental enrichment also gives visitors the opportunity to see captive animals exhibit behaviors that are seen in the wild.  This may spark a passion with the visitor and encourage them to research how they can help conserve a species’ natural habitat.

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