Enriching Environments

What is animal enrichment and why do we do it? We’re not talking vitamin supplements (though they might be included!) but ways to engage and entertain the animals in our care. Read on to learn from our amazing young collaborator Sarah Green, who earned the Girl Scout Gold Award for her project researching and creating enrichment for the Museum’s animals.

In addition to crafting a variety of enrichment structures herself, Sarah led a community enrichment-making workshop on October 9th, creating an opportunity for children and adults alike to observe animals enjoying enrichment, roll up their sleeves and make some structures of their own, and learn as Sarah gave a public presentation. We are beyond grateful for Sarah’s hard work on this incredible project!

What is enrichment?

Basking in the Sonoran sun is not all that the Desert Museum’s animals do. On a daily basis, they engage in environmental enrichment. Whether it is a “deer” box for a mountain lion or a snakeskin for javelinas, what exactly is enrichment?

Environmental enrichment comes in a variety of forms, but they all enhance an enclosure and stimulate an animal’s life. Quality environmental enrichment follows the four C’s: choice, control, challenge, and connection. Enrichment following these parameters gives animals choices to make and control in their lives. They are also presented challenges to make them think and hopefully keep them busy by stimulating natural behaviors. Moreover, animals can forge connections with their keepers or their roommates by utilizing enrichment. To top it off, well-crafted enrichment keeps our animals physically active.

Enrichment created at the Museum for the animals in its care is tailored to the animals’ specific behaviors and needs. For instance, if an animal forages in the wild, an enrichment that encourages foraging behavior should be provided in an animal’s enclosure.

Why is enrichment so essential?

Enrichment keeps animals physically and mentally healthy. Without enrichment, our animals could develop a concerning illness: zoochosis. Zoochosis is a manifestation of depression in captive animals, characterized by repetitive actions such as swaying, bar-biting, pacing, circling, and more.

The Museum provides engaging enrichment for its animals every day. Many of the animals in our care came to live here because they were orphaned or injured and unable to be returned to the wild. With enrichment, these animals can behave as they would in the wild while serving as ambassadors to their kind, giving people a better understanding of their lives and important roles in nature.

What types of enrichment do we provide animals?

At the Desert Museum, keepers are always coming up with fresh ideas to mimic the Sonoran Desert’s unique challenges. To list all the different types of enrichment could take up an entire book! The following examples highlight several types of enrichment created during my project:

The firehose hammocks are used for many of the animals in the Desert Museum. Firehose hammocks are self-explanatory: they are hammocks made of woven firehose. The one pictured had firehose donated from the Silverbell Heliport Fire Department and was, along with its twin, created for the gray fox and skunk in the Interpretive Animal Collection (IAC). Since it is furniture, the hammock is something for the animals to climb or rest on. Additionally, the hammocks can serve as olfactory enrichment: engaging an animal’s sense of smell. Now and then, keepers will switch who has which hammock; the new and strange scents will enrich both the gray fox and the skunk!

Firehose hammocks make great enrichment for mammals.

The texture board is a tactile enrichment: based on the sense of touch. Texture boards are simply pieces of plywood covered in various textures for reptiles and small mammals to romp on. In this texture board, tile, a washing mitt, fake grass, sponges, carpet, and more were used to create a little biome: something new to explore at every step. It is not uncommon for an animal to step or slither onto the washing mitt or fake grass and rest on it; there is nothing comfier! Texture enrichment can even be downsized to some of the overlooked members of the Sonoran Desert: arthropods. Arachnids like spiders and scorpions get their fair share of texture enrichment, such as a raisin box!

Sandy the prairie dog explores Sarah’s texture board.

Lastly, the snake pegboard is an invaluable enrichment that cannot fit in just one category! When docents interpret snakes on grounds, they have to hold them, and the snake has to comply with what the docent wants. The snake pegboard allows the snake to choose where they want to go; it imitates how a snake would act on a tree in the wild. Plus, the pegs are made out of palo verde branches, mesquite branches, and PVC tubes, giving them tactile enrichment. The pegboard is relatively lightweight and can be taken to many places to interpret snakes, on and off grounds!

All animals, including reptiles, need enrichment!

The possibilities for quality enrichment are almost boundless as long as you stick to the four C’s and consider an animal’s natural behavior. Remember, these rules apply to your pets just as much as the animals at the Desert Museum. So, go ahead, enrich away!

Written by Sarah Green, Girl Scout and Desert Museum Junior Docent, and Desert Museum staff

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