6 Calendar Strategies For Enrichment Variation

Animals have a natural need for novelty and variation. They have a certain behavioural need to explore their environment and the need for challenges in their lives. However, animals will habituate to novelty when there is no or little variation in it. Eventually, they know how it works, what there will come, and what to expect from the environment and routine. We often talked already about the need for variation in enrichment programs and the need for many different enrichment devices. But variety also needs to be created with the implementation. At home, with your own pet animal, you know exactly what you gave your animal on enrichment. But even then it can be wise to track your enrichment effort. However, when you care for animals in zoos or other facilities with multiple animals, mostly with more caretakers then only yourself, it is crucial to track the enrichment given to ensure a level of variation and record the progress of the enrichment program. So, let’s have a dive into 6 calendar strategies to ensure enrichment variation. 

It depends on your enrichment plan

Your calendar strategy depends on your enrichment plan. You first need to determine the need for enrichment variety and the criteria, before you can implement a calendar strategy. But not only that. It will also depend on the skills and knowledge your team members have and the involvement and effort your team members make. Some calendar strategies have a high level of ‘freedom’ which enrichment will be given to an animal. When you have a young or inexperienced team, it would be better to limit the freedom to which extent they choose the enrichment items by themself. To give you an extensive overview of the possibilities, we will discuss the different enrichment calendar strategies, in order of no freedom of choice to most freedom of choice: Static calendar; Random calendar; Choose between three calendar; Category of the day calendar; Check-off calendar; And the blank calendar. We also have a look at the needed knowledge & skills and labour intensity (including preparation time, documenting and evaluating). 

Static animal enrichment calendar
Photo source: My Dog Likes (2018)

1. The static enrichment calendar strategy

     Download: Static enrichment calendar

With this enrichment schedule, you exactly determine which enrichment is given at which moment. There is no freedom for caregivers to make up their own enrichment. This calendar strategy is beneficial when you work with a team that has no to little experience with enrichment and behaviour. If you work with volunteers, it works very well. You still have control over the enrichment given (or what needs to be prepared for the next day). Also, it guarantees that there is a certain variation of enrichment given and especially when you want a variation in enrichment types. A disadvantage will be that you need already all the enrichment that is formulated in this schedule. This schedule can be based on a weekly, two-weekly or monthly basis. Furthermore, this calendar strategy has the most potential for enrichment habituation (likewise for the caregivers), because of its steady routine. You have to evaluate the enrichment periodically to ensure the enrichment is still enriching (enough).  

  • Freedom ● 
  • Knowledge/skills ●
  • Labour intensity ●

2. The random enrichment calendar strategy

When you want to include more unpredictability into your enrichment program, the random enrichment calendar strategy will be perfect. You have a list of a certain amount of enrichment all numbered, and with some sort of randomness test, you will pick the enrichment item for the animal. You can do this with the help of (a) dice(s), but you can also use an excel-program that generates a random number (see the download for this tool). This strategy still can be used with inexperienced team members or volunteers, but it creates a level of unpredictability to what the animal gets. You need at least 14 enrichment items to make it mostly proof for habituation to the enrichment items because, with this strategy, it can overcome that a certain enrichment device is chosen twice in a week. But, the more enrichment items, the better. To be prepared, you can choose the enrichment a day before, so there is still some prep time for the enrichment. 

  • Freedom ●  
  • Knowledge/skills ●
  • Labour intensity ●●●

3. The ‘choose between three’ enrichment calendar strategy

     Download: Choose between three enrichment calendar

A calendar strategy that has some flexibility is the ‘choose between three’ enrichment calendar. It is set up that you choose every day between three items. With capuchin monkeys, for example, you can choose on Monday between Kong-feeders, Basket-feeders or Bamboo-feeders. On Tuesday you can choose between curry powder, perfume or scented bags. And so on for the rest of the week. It can be preferable to choose an enrichment category for every day in the (two) week(s). That way you prevent that caregivers choose food-based enrichment every time, for example, because that is the most fun to see, or because it is easiest to do. This strategy needs some more documentation and much more enrichment items to choose from. Also, it will need more effort from the team members, so they don’t continuously choose what is best for them instead of the animals and that they don’t choose the same item every time. Once a while, you can evaluate and create other enrichment options. Besides, I say three items a day to choose from, but it can also be six if you want. It depends on how many enrichment items are available. Another way is to start with a choice of three a day and increase it over time when it is successful. 

  • Freedom ●●●
  • Knowledge/skills ●●
  • Labour intensity ●●●

4. The category of the day enrichment calendar strategy

     Download: Weekly topic enrichment calendar

The category of the day enrichment calendar strategy is to make sure all enrichment categories are used to enrich the animal. This way, you can make sure that caregivers not only choose food or toys, but will also look at other categories like sensory (smell, taste, vision, and sound) or structural. Or maybe once a week a cognitive challenge, for example for primates. You assign an enrichment category to every day in the week for one or two weeks. Within each category, the caregiver is free to choose from the existing enrichment collection or even to build/try out a new enrichment item. This strategy needs caregivers with some more experience and knowledge of enrichment and behavioural needs. But on the other hand, there is more room for team members to develop the skills needed to make better enrichment efforts. And it is for some caregivers more inspiring to have this freedom. However, it takes more effort from the keeper to prepare the enrichment. Not that it takes longer to prepare the enrichment (unless you build new enrichment), but they have to think more about what to give and which option would be best for the (next) day. 

  • Freedom ●●●●
  • Knowledge/skills ●●●●● 
  • Labour intensity ●●●●
Photo source: The Educated Zookeeper

5. The check-off enrichment calendar strategy

     Download: Check-off enrichment calendar

One enrichment calendar strategy that I recently discovered was the check-off strategy. And as the name says, you check-off from a list of proven enrichment items the used items for a certain species. It would make it even easier when the type of enrichment is also mentioned on the list. For example, you make a list of let’s say 30 items for Eurasian lynxes that you can use. Every day you check-off the enrichment item that is used. That way, it isn’t used for the rest of the month anymore. It creates a certain random variation for every month. It gives caregivers a lot of freedom which item is used. Another approach can be that you list 40 enrichment items and that you start over every new month, so you are not forced to provide that single last item on the last day. The list can grow longer and longer with more and more items. However, it needs some more preparation time, and you have to be aware that caregivers do not only choose the enrichment items most effortless to give. Another pitfall is that you need to be mindful not to provide all enrichment items within the same category after each other, but more spread over time. So not seven puzzle feeders in one week. Well-performed documentation is critical to make this schedule work. 

  • Freedom ●●●
  • Knowledge/skills ●●●●  
  • Labour intensity ●●●●
Blank calendar as enrichment schedule strategy
Photo source: The Educated Zookeeper

6. The blank enrichment calendar strategy

     Download: Blank enrichment calendar

The last enrichment calendar strategy gives you complete freedom as a caregiver. You have a one or two-week blank calendar for a certain species where for every day is noted which enrichment item is provided. It takes a lot from the caregiver. They should think of to ensure variation in different categories of enrichment, need to think of proven and effective enrichment, and it takes more time documenting it all so not the same enrichment is provided every time. This strategy requires a high level of knowledge and skills about enrichment and natural behaviour of a species. However, this works well for experienced team members but is more difficult when volunteers or interns are involved. Also, the documentation and evaluation of the enrichment must not be underestimated. 

  • Freedom ●●●●●  
  • Knowledge/skills ●●●●●  
  • Labour intensity ●●●●●

Food for thought

Let’s end this exciting topic with something to chew on. For many cases, you need many enrichment items that are proven to be effective for the species in question. Therefore you need to evaluate the enrichment regular. Despite the differences between the different strategies, every enrichment calendar strategy has its pros and cons. You have to search for the approach that best suits your situation. And even so, you (possibly) still need it to tweak it a bit to make it perfect for your aims. It is only a tool to make it easier to create and reach a certain enrichment variation. There is no such thing as one golden rule that can be applied. Within every team, some caregivers like the freedom to decide how to enrich the animals, others like a guide where it is stated how the animals are/need to be enriched. When you are in charge of formulating the enrichment plan, you have to decide which approach fits the best. 

So, after a bunch of research, I determined these are the six enrichment calendar strategies. But if you have another approach than the one talked about, I like to hear from you. If it is an impressive and different approach, I’ll add it to the list as well. So please let me know!

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