You might pass time by watching TV, you might entertain your dog by throwing a stick or a ball or you might take your child to play in the park. That’s enrichment.
A huge part of animal care here at Blackpool Zoo is to encourage our animals to use their natural abilities and behaviours to interact with their environment. That’s where enrichment comes in.
Enrichment is name given to the approaches and principles adopted to improve the well-being of the animals in our care, no matter whether they are furry, feathery or scaly. Enrichment is something that improves an individual’s well-being, be it physically, mentally, behaviourally or socially.
Enrichment can take many forms, including the design of stimulating and naturalistic enclosures, the housing of appropriate social groups in zoos, and the introduction of objects, sounds, smells or other stimuli in the animal’s environment. Those out-of-place items you may see in exhibits aren’t there by mistake: they play a key role in stimulating our animals and exciting the senses.
It’s something we do for all our animals, from the smallest primates up to our biggest resident – Kate.
Our keepers include challenging training sessions into Kate’s daily routine to provide mental and physical stimulation for her. This allows her to display behaviors which help us conduct daily health checks. Her training sessions take place daily at the reinforced training wall, where Kate has been trained to touch a target stick for a reward, which has led to being taught to present her ears and feet through openings in the wall. This means she can receive blood tests and foot care without becoming stressed.
She’ll be given a clear instruction, for example “Kate, foot”. When she successfully completes that instruction, she is rewarded with a favourite treat. This is a method known as positive reinforcement (the same method we use to train sea lions and birds for our displays). Kate is very clever and can understand up to 60 different vocal commands.
Kate usually starts her day with a brisk walk around the paddock to allow her keepers to check her mobility and locomotion, and enrichment throughout the day keeps her on the move, as she can choose whether to spend her time inside or outside.
Mid morning and it’s time for her spa treatments – She has a warm power-wash every day, tea tree shampoo twice a week and exfoliation with a brush to keep her skin healthy. Pedicures keep her 15cm toe nails trimmed and cuticles in tip top condition. A special pink moisturiser is applied to keep her skin supple and promote hair growth.
Food, glorious food
As well as her daily training sessions, Kate is provided with different experiences within her enclosure every day. You’ll often see keepers scattering or hiding her food around the enclosure to encourage her to forage, hunt and seek out her food, manipulating her trunk which strengthens her muscles, as elephants would do in the wild. Her food is always served up different to the day before – sometimes it’s in a simple hay net, sometimes it’s hidden inside a barrel and if she’s really lucky she might get her peanut shuttle filled up!!
Home sweet home
Habitat management is a key part of Kate’s care, and it’s a never ending task! Section head of Large Mammals, Adam Kenyon, explains what the team did just this week, as you can see in the photographs below.
“We regularly change the internal landscape to keep her active. Adding deep sand to her enclosure means Kate has to work a little bit harder to walk around, this strengthens her muscles, aids mobility and can help reduce the effects of arthritis. As you can see we’ve planted browse (trees) and hidden food items amongst the sand, allowing Kate to exhibit her natural foraging behaviours.”
After a busy day, Kate is visited one last time for an evening feed around 10pm. Then, our cameras track her movements during the night and regularly record a healthy sleeping pattern of over 6 hours, roughly two hours more than the average elephant bedtime!.