What is enrichment and why do we do it?

What is enrichment and why do we do it?

Happy birthday to our littlest elephant in the herd, Belle! She turned six years old last weekend and celebrated in style with a unicorn themed birthday party, receiving from her keepers special items such as ice blocks, new enrichment items and treats. But this birthday bash was more than a celebration – it also served as enrichment for the little elephant and her herd. But what is enrichment and why do we do it?

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Behavioral Advisory Group definition: 

Enrichment is “a process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare.”

But what does that really mean? Basically, enrichment occurs when animal keepers introduce new scents, objects or food to our animals in order to stimulate natural behaviors. This will in turn give them positive interactions with their environments and encourage them to be active and explore in ways they naturally would in the wild. 

One enrichment example is called "puzzle feeders." As a form of mental stimulation, this enrichment activity offers animals opportunities to solve "problems" and work for their food. Keepers also scatter and hide food in exhibits for animals to hunt for or provide physical objects for animals to manipulate. Most often, animals will receive a special enrichment treat on birthdays or holidays. All of these enrichment activities specifically promote natural exploratory, foraging and hunting behaviors. 

All enrichment activities are well thought out, vetted through our conservation and behavior department, and approved to make sure the animals at the Fort Worth Zoo are successfully stimulated. Our enrichment program is directly managed by professional biologists, behaviorists and zookeepers, who provide the necessary supplies and knowledge to implement enrichment for all animals in our Zoo.

Curious to know more? Check out our Animal Enrichment Program photo gallery, or follow us on social media to see some photos and videos from past enrichments. If you're lucky, maybe you'll even be able to catch an enrichment in action at the Fort Worth Zoo.