Animal Care

What is Animal Enrichment?

Animal enrichment is provided to animals to provide mental and physical stimulation in their daily lives. Animals in nature have to work for a living – to find food, to make nests, and to find shelter. Play is another natural activity. Life for the animals at Reid Park Zoo is more predictable than in the wild. That’s why our keepers use enrichment to create variety through work and play. Without a doubt, the animals enjoy the zoo keepers encouraging natural responses in creative habitats – it’s a fun and unique experience for them and our guests!

Zoo keepers use enrichment items — like toys, feeders, and tree branches and stumps – to create a stimulating environment and encourage animals to engage in natural behaviors.

We all love watching the natural behaviors of animals: an anteater digging at a rotting log with its sharp claws, a grizzly bear splashing and pawing at a delicious treat in a stream, a baby elephant rolling itself down a sandy hill. At the Zoo, one task of the animal care team is to create opportunities for the animals to engage in their natural behaviors. Zoo exhibits are designed with the animals’ comfort and natural behavior in mind. Exhibits have permanent features the animals use to express many natural behaviors and zookeepers enhance the space with a changing array of enrichment items.

Our zookeepers go the extra mile to keep the environment stimulating and interesting for the animals. Keepers have a toolbox of standard enrichment items that they can mix and match for animals on a daily basis. Our standard toolbox includes items like puzzle feeders, popsicles, time-released feeders for scattering food, toys to roll and pounce on such as heavy duty plastic balls — as well as scents and paper items such as piñatas made by summer campers and brightly-wrapped birthday boxes too.

‘Browse’ — or tree branches, logs and stumps — are also part of this set of enrichment. Our big challenge is gathering enough of this favorite enrichment item to satisfy the bears, cats, elephants, giraffe, and others. The City of Tucson’s tree trimmers and private tree services help us to acquire trailers full of mesquite, sumac and other edible trees for play and food. Many animals, like the bears, will build nests from branches and leaves, while others like giraffe and elephants eat them. Our big cats just like to shred them for fun.

Zoo keepers use enrichment flow design to develop enrichment by selecting the behavior they would like the animal to exhibit to encourage the animal to show off that behavior. Our keepers (and their college interns) observe the behavioral repertoire repertoire of the animal and carefully choose which behavior(s) to focus on increasing.

Interns and keepers work together to create opportunities for the animals to show off these behaviors. For example giraffe rub their ossicones – the horn-like bumps on the top of their heads — against the trees in their exhibit, so offering brushes and bamboo wind chimes can increase the frequency of this behavior. A guanaco naturally stands on hind legs to reach the fruits of tall cacti. Our keepers engineered tasty treats in the same high position for the guanaco to practice her two-legged balance. Grizzly bears spend a good portion of time making comfortable beds to rest in. Daily our keepers haul in hay, branches, long grasses, paper shreds, palm fronds and other suitable materials for bears to rest upon. The keeper will scatter the materials throughout the bears’ space and then the bears work to gather what they want to make a bed.

At times it can be difficult to tell which half of the partnership is having more fun creating and using enrichment – the keepers or the animals. Either way our zoo visitors win and see some awesome animal behavior at the zoo!