What Is Enrichment?
If you have had the pleasure of visiting the Zoo during special events, you will have seen animal habitats filled with paper-mâché creatures, carved pumpkins, wrapped gifts, ice sculptures, unusual cakes, and even snow.
But enrichment isn't reserved just for holidays, it's offered to our animals every day in less obvious ways such as varied food choices, often hidden to encourage foraging and problem-solving; large "Boomer Balls" that are not only toys, they can also be filled with feed pellets that fall out when rolled a certain way; items sprayed with scents from other animals; or even the design of the exhibits to resemble a natural habitat. All of our animals large and small – from the chickens in the Fisher Family Children's Zoo Family Farm to the reptiles in the Koret Animal Resource Center to the tallest giraffe – receive a variety of enrichment rotated daily. We even tailor enrichment to specific animal personalities such as our female chimps, who are particularly fond of wrapping themselves in a blanket and flipping through magazines to enjoy the pictures.
Although most of the animals in zoos were bred in captivity and have never lived in the wild, captive breeding has not removed their natural, wild instincts. Since everything is provided for them – food, water, shelter, and safety – enrichment provides psychological and physical challenges to keep them active and interested in their surroundings.
Generally, enrichment can be divided into several basic types:
- Environmental Enrichment Items
Objects that can be manipulated by the animal such as novel items or toys
- Habitat Enrichment
Habitat design, substrates, water features, etc.
- Sensory Enrichment
Designed to address the animal's sense of smell, touch, hearing, vision, and taste
and elicit species-specific responses including territorial, reproductive or hunting behaviors
- Food Enrichment
Increased variety, foraging opportunities and problem solving to get at the food
- Social Groupings
Mixed gender and family interactivity where appropriate for non-solitary species, offering
opportunities including grooming, bonding and playing
- Behavioral Conditioning
Training and handling when possible, usually as an aid to veterinary care (training animals to present body parts for blood draws, grooming and health checks reduces the need for anesthesia and the activity is stimulating)
Zoo staff and volunteers work hard to provide the animals with something novel each day. Making enrichment is not easy; it takes creativity to make safe items for the animals that don't have tape, staples, glue, or toxic chemicals. For example, wrapping paper is often applied to boxes using peanut butter or a gluey mixture of flour and water.
There are now 833 individual items cataloged in our Approved Enrichment Library and the list is growing every day. Curators and keepers are always coming up with clever new enrichment ideas, either using their own imaginations or through collaboration with colleagues at zoos around the world. The ideas then go through an approval process involving the Zoo Veterinary Hospital before being added to the Library. Some keepers utilize a calendar system to plan out enrichment for the month, but most keepers do enrichment as part of their daily routine. Next time you are at a Keeper Talk, ask about the enrichments their animals enjoy and the keepers are sure to have many stories to tell you.
How You Can Help
- We give the public a chance to make enrichment items during our quarterly Renew the Zoo volunteer workdays. Bring your friends, family and colleagues and participate in these fun opportunities.
- Take advantage of your San Francisco Zoo and visit during our special events where you'll get to see animals enjoying their themed treats. Become a Zoo Member and come to our events all year long…for free.