Turn On The Environment – Technology Driven (Digital) Enrichment

Technology is utilized in daily life more and more. Technology is almost everywhere. Similarly, zoos are using technology progressively in their institutions as well. You can see it in educational efforts, using auditory and visual signs to educate the visitors. Your tickets for the zoo are now bought online. Zoos often have a mobile app with an interactive map when you walk around the animals. Nowadays, you can more frequently follow your favourite animals online and see an animal birth live beyond your computer screen. But within the animals’ environment are also many possibilities to use technology to improve the overall welfare. Let’s dive in the use of technology for environmental enrichment. 

Cover Photo: Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University

Why “turn on” the environment?

Environmental enrichment is a “process for enhancing animal environments”. All animals possess some method of interfacing and interact with their environment. When using static enrichment devices, habituation to enrichment can lead to declining effectiveness over time. Therefore, in turn, it necessitates maintaining an assortment of different enrichment devices to keep the animals interested. Using technology can add variability into the otherwise very static zoo environment. No, not that we have to give every animal a smartphone or touchscreen. And even so, not all animals are motivated or able to interact with such a touchscreen interface. But consider this: by using technology to drive changes to animals’ environments, the environment itself will become an interface, the “touchscreen” sort of speaking, between an animal and the digital enrichment. Through the creative application of hobby electronics (think of Arduino or Raspberry Pi), we can make proactive enrichment that replicates exciting features of the animals’ wild environment. With the use of technology within environmental enrichment, we can provide predictable and unpredictable rewards, but can also give control by signal (signalled predictability) the impending arrival of rewards. Digital enrichment can “activate” the environment that can result in increased investigatory behaviours and activity levels. 

Using food with digital enrichment

Altering food availability and make the availability unpredictable can be an easy way to increase the variability of the animals’ environment. When providing food with technology-driven enrichments devices throughout the day and/or throughout the enclosure can increase the animals’ foraging and investigatory behaviours. In the same way, it increases the activity of an animal and can improve the spatial use of its enclosure. Extending forage behaviours has a main priority in the captive setting, as in comparison with the wild, animals in captivity spend much less time on foraging behaviour.

Furthermore, with a variable feeding schedule planned in the enrichment device, it can have a positive effect on pre-feeding anticipation and zookeeper-related begging or abnormal behaviour. Animals in the wild must cope with continuous changing conditions. When animals live on a typically predictable schedule, are familiar with their habitat and habituated entirely to daily husbandry events, they may experience decreased motivation to engage in natural behaviours and explore their environment throughout the day. Because they know when events that matter (e.g. feeding time) occur, they will not perform exploratory behaviours anymore between events and sometimes are compensated with abnormal behaviours. Technology-driven enrichment opens a lot of possibilities to create and increase changing environments to fulfil this behavioural need to continuously, or at least frequently, assess the environment. 

You can make these “digital enrichment” even more powerful when you combine them with the contrafreeloading concept. When you use a variable feeding schedule and increase the effort to collect the food will be more in line with the natural foraging behaviour of many animals. For example, when you build a tube which releases small portions of pellets on a variable schedule and drops them in a brush box where the animal has to search for these pellets, you make feeding unpredictable, and the animal needs to make a certain effort before they can eat, just like in the wild. It would be even better if you have multiple devices on different locations in the enclosure, so animals are not learning to sit and wait by such a device until a food reward drops.  

A really excellent example of this principle is developed by WildThink, where they made an Animal Vending Machine so animals can collect tokens to exchange them for food. With this apparatus, animals must search their environment for tokens and bring them to a location for a reward.

Animal Vending Machine by WildThink

Non-food digital enrichment opportunities

But implementing digital enrichment is not limited to food-based enrichment devices. Although extending forage behaviour has a significant focus, there are many other ways to enrich the environment with technology. Think of heating lamps or rocks: when you have multiple of these devices in the enclosure, you can connect them to a programmed switchboard where they are turned on and off using a variable schedule. This way, animals need to search for the best spot to rest, relax or sunbath. These methods are great to increase exploratory behaviours and increase the spatial use of the enclosure.

In the same way, you can use olfactory sprays, which can be (variable) timed, to spray a particular scent. You can even expand such a device by connecting multiple sprays on different locations. In another example from San Fransisco Zoo, they used a water misting machine driven by an Arduino for the Komodo dragon. The mister is turned on randomly once each hour for 5 minutes. With the use of a LED the Komodo is signalled 10 seconds before the misting event and therefore can choose to move towards or away from the misting spout. In this way, the animal has control over this event. There are several studies where mostly apes cognitive behaviours are stimulated with the use of touchscreens. However, the use of these devices is often encouraged with the use of a certain food reward and makes it more of a digital food puzzle. 

Switchboard heat caves with timers, manual switches and thermoregulated sensors

Let’s turn on the environment

With the use of affordable technology, we can explore new ways to improve the environment of animals in captivity. Technology can make a more dynamical and changing environment to fulfil the animals’ behavioural need to interact with its environment. With some basic hobby electronics components and a dose of creativity, there are tremendous opportunities to increase the overall welfare. So, let’s turn on the environment of the animals in our care!

Have you used technology in your enrichment devices? Please, I encourage you to share your examples in the comments below.

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