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:
- obsessive chewing & licking
- repetitive vocalizations
- aggression towards cage-mates or keepers
- obsession or disinterest in food
- consuming nonfood items (pica)
- banging against caging
- lack of grooming
- lethargy, apathy
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.
SPECIFIC ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT ACTIVITIES EMPLOYED AT SAFE HAVEN
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.