Safe Haven's environmental enrichment program was initiated and developed by our Director of Enrichment, Susan Gardner. This page contains comprehensive information about the philosophy of enrichment and the purpose of several types of enrichment activities. We have added a page of recent enrichment news.



What is environmental enrichment?

On an instinctive level, environmental enrichment is something that improves the quality of a captive animal's life. But more specifically, environmental enrichment increases the behavioral options available to the captive animal and draws out species appropriate behavior (BHAG, 1999) by:

  • increasing behavioral diversity
  • reducing the frequency of abnormal behaviors
  • increasing the range of normal, "wild" behaviors
  • increasing the positive utilization of the environment
  • increasing the ability to deal with challenges in a more normal way (Young, 2003)

Phoenix, our resident bobcat, rolls in lemon zest.


Experts in the field of environmental and behavioral enrichment study ways to provide captive animals with environmental stimuli to compensate for the absence of a rich and challenging natural habitat.

"Training" (operant conditioning) is often included within a definition of enrichment. Although not a natural, normal behavior, many captive animals seem to enjoy the attention of their keepers/trainers and appear to find these activities enriching. Operant conditioning programs reward behaviors that can improve the quality of the captive animal's life, training them to allow the handling necessary for examination or the administration of medication, or to be moved to a selected location such as a lockout for safety.

Why is environmental enrichment necessary?

Animals in their natural habitat encounter a rich spectrum of environmental stimuli every day, as they carry out the tasks essential for survival. They are "busy" all the time. For the survival of the individual, they must find food and shelter, and avoid predators and other hazards. For the survival of the species, they engage in mating and infant-rearing activities. Practically from the moment of birth, animals in the wild develop and refine the skills essential for survival.

Captive animals have the same instincts, and the same energetic need to respond to their environment, as do their counterparts in the wild. However, in the absence of the need to engage their environment and struggle for survival, their instincts and energy can express themselves in obsessive, stereotypic, counterproductive and even self-destructive behaviors (see sidebar).

No matter how ideal, a captive environment can never duplicate the vast range, challenging terrain, or dietary authenticity and variety an animal encounters in its natural habitat.

Some animals respond to the potential frustration & boredom of captivity by:

  • pacing
  • obsessive chewing & licking
  • repetitive vocalizations
  • aggression towards cage-mates or keepers
  • self-mutilation
  • obsession or disinterest in food
  • consuming nonfood items (pica)
  • banging against caging
  • lack of grooming
  • lethargy, apathy
  • hiding

How does Safe Haven provide environmental enrichment?

Safe Haven believes that environmental enrichment contributes to captive animal welfare by helping to maintain the animal in good physical and psychological health. Environmental enrichment at Safe Haven is designed to proactively encourage the expression of healthy, normal behaviors, as opposed to a reactive approach to negate undesirable behaviors. Safe Haven endorses a behavioral engineering approach to environmental enrichment, with the addition of operant conditioning programming. We have specific enrichment programs for our big cats (cougars and bobcat), foxes, and opossums.

The intent of environmental enrichment at Safe Haven is twofold:

  • In addition to a wide variety of sensory and behavioral enrichment activities, permanent resident animals receive a continuous schedule of operant conditioning to facilitate safe handling for husbandry purposes.
  • Orphaned animals being raised for reintroduction, or adult animals undergoing rehabilitation prior to reintroduction, receive enrichments designed to elicit behaviors that will be needed upon release, and to maintain their physical and psychological well-being while in captivity. Contact with keepers is kept at a minimum for animals marked for reintroduction; they receive no operant conditioning.



Environmental enrichment is built into the design and furnishing of our animal enclosures.

  • Caging for permanent residents is large mesh, allowing a high level of visual, auditory, and tactile interaction with the environment outside the enclosure.
  • All large animal housing is outdoors and features natural, dappled sunlight, natural shade and natural substrate (flooring).
  • All outdoor housing is subject to seasonal variation in ambient temperature, with supplementary den heating provided as appropriate.
  • Outdoor caging includes wood/foraging piles.

Our big cat enclosures feature climbing apparatus & multilevel viewing/sleeping platforms in addition to enclosed dens. Cub Cooper quickly learned to maneuver on the platforms and rails when he was moved into one of the enclosures in March 2005. He is sure-footed even when the rails are slick with snow. Above, center—Cooper prepares to spring to the next level.

Outdoor housing features areas open to the weather, as well as protected areas. Outdoor enclosures include trees, stumps, and other vegetation. In Spring 2004, new sod was installed in the enclosure shared by cougars Tahoe and Savannah. Tahoe (above, center) rolls and wraps himself in it, and adopts a protective stance when anyone approaches the sodded area.

Phoenix (left) and the other cats have been provided with galvanized tubs & tanks. Cooper (right), behind a discarded Christmas tree, practices typical predatory behaviors such as stalking, "freezing," and pouncing from behind the branches.

Many captive animal enrichment activities center on foraging and hunting behaviors.

  • Gelatin Blood Jigglers, which wiggle and ooze away in a manner reminiscent of live prey, are periodically provided to the cats and to Serena, our permanent resident fox.
  • Bloodsicles are provided in warm weather. "Catching" the bobbing Bloodsicle in a tub of water mimics hunting.

Above, left—Phoenix, our bobcat, relishes a low-sodium beef bouillon Gelatin Jiggler. Center—Phoenix enjoys a Cantaloupe Cannonball, a frozen cantaloupe stuffed with frozen diluted pureed chicken livers. Right—What will Tahoe do with his "Gut"ter Ball? See photo sequence.

Dancing Branches—long branches swished and jiggled in the cage the way one would play with a kitten and a string—evoke a hunting response. Phoenix (below left) enjoys Dancing Branches—but only if a familiar, trusted keeper is making the branch dance. She also likes to eat the leaves. Serena (below right), our resident fox, runs excitedly in circles chasing the Dancing Branches, then comes to a sudden stop.

Savannah, an adult cougar, is frightened of the Dancing Branches, and her cagemate, Tahoe, is completely uninterested. But Montana, our adolescent cougar, is intrigued by them—see photo sequence.


Olfactory stimulation plays a large part in hunting/feeding behavior

  • Scented boughs are sprayed with essential oils such as rosemary or pine, and then mounted to hang within the cage. Although Scented Boughs are used for olfactory stimulation, sometimes the big cats also eat the leaves. Phoenix likes to eat hers. Montana attacks his when it blows in the wind. In the future, special treats will be hidden in digging beds, forage piles, pinatas, and specially constructed cubes made from old fire hose.
  • Punctured cardboard tubes and paper bags are filled with dried herbs and sprayed with oils.
  • Water mixed with essential oils (such as rosemary, pine, orange, vanilla, wintergreen or peppermint) is sprayed in a variety of places, including climbing apparatus, dens, woodpiles and cardboard tubes.
  • Excrement from prey animals (hamster droppings, cow urine...) and bird feathers are scattered in areas of the enclosures or encased in cardboard tubes or paper bags.

After getting help removing a meat treat from a tube, Serena conceals it under a stump in her enclosure.

Savannah (below left) receives a cardboard roll stuffed with herbs and sprayed with rosemary oil. In the center photo, she bites into a mail tube filled with fresh catnip before pulling it into her lockout. When a very sturdy tube is used, she expects the keeper to throw it into the cage like a javelin so she can chase it and pounce. She often allows the keeper to regain the tube and throw it several times before finally "killing" the tube—after taking it from the keeper, she carries it off, rips it open and rolls in it.

Montana (below right) eyes a mail tube that has been placed on his perch. Somewhat fearful, he waits for the keeper to throw it into his enclosure.

The big cats are provided with bowling balls (below, left). They are often stimulated to play when the bowling balls are sprayed with oils, and the holes are filled with scented water. Below, right—Savannah relishes fox scent sprayed in her enclosure. (How many other enrichment items & furnishings do you see?) On another occasion, Savannah enjoyed a fox-scented mail tube—see photo sequence.

Montana was highly stimulated when fox scent was rubbed on a post in his enclosure—see photo sequence.


Sources & Resources:

Report by the Enrichment Working Group of the Behavior and Husbandry Advisory Group (BHAG), 1999

Rob J. Young, Environmental Enrichment (Blackwell Publishing, 2003)

The Shape of Enrichment

For more information, contact Safe Haven's Director of Enrichment.

Photos courtesy of Susan Gardner