Environmental enrichment, also known as behavioural enrichment or behavioural husbandry, is provided for a different number of reasons in zoos and aquariums, mainly to support good animal welfare. Environmental enrichment is a qualified practice to enhance the physical and mental health of animals in captivity. Providing stimulating environments it has become a key component in zoo husbandry management. Proper enrichment can prevent boredom and frustration what eventually can result in negative behaviours, but mostly it is implemented to stimulate species-specific behaviourally biological needs. It is also used to improve the visitor experience. The public wants to see active, healthy animals.
Environmental enrichment gained its importance because the captive environment in zoos and aquariums will always have limitations when it comes to mimicking the natural environment. Animals have evolved specific skills and behaviours to survive in their natural habitat. The captive environment doesn’t always allow to express the full behavioural repertoire. But why are these limitations in the captive environment in the first place? Sometimes it is just impossible to accommodate for these natural behaviours. Think of the migration behaviour in many species. Yet when natural behaviours can be provided for, some captive environments still do not always provide.
When practising good animal welfare, enclosures are designed in a manner that must meet a multitude, is it not for all, of these behavioural needs. Often you see enclosure design that allows for easy access, maintenance, intervention and bio-security measures. Sometimes visitors needs are also considered over animals needs. Think of the enclosures with 360 observational access, esthetic environments that look pretty from the visitor perspective, but not covers the animals’ specific needs. However, these environments restrict the expression of natural behaviours, and the result? We provide enrichment. This compensation tendency within the zoo culture is self-perpetuating. A sub-optimal enclosure design results in negative behaviours and enrichment intervention is required, which when implemented correctly results in a demonstration of good animal care and encourage further intervention. Do you genuinely need to (over)compensate with environmental enrichment?
It may be impossible to create the perfect enclosure for many species to mimic the natural environment completely, but zoos and aquariums can still make some immediate improvements. Zoos can lend more weight to behavioural indicators for animal welfare and consider this more within their enclosure designs. We need to start the conversation with visitors so they understand that animals need space to retreat too and won’t always be on view. We need to design enclosures that encourage more normal and natural behaviours 24/7 rather than aesthetic designs. These changes can all lead to a reduction in enrichment intervention but an increase in physically and mentally healthier animals.