Tuesday July 26, 2011
Enrichment programmes for captive animals
By NATALIEH ENG
To prevent captive animals from losing their natural behaviours, zoos are instituting enrichment programmes.
CAPTIVE animals in zoos and related institutions exist in an environment controlled by people. There are no zebras for lions to pounce on, no trees for elephants to wrestle with, and no rats scurrying through the undergrowth for our slithery friends to surprise.
In the captive environment, any opportunity to run, jump, pounce, climb, burrow, hunt and basically do what comes naturally to the animals, is afforded by humans. These are what zoo keepers call “enrichment programmes”.
Enrichment is all about making sure animals have the opportunities to remain stimulated, both mentally and physically. It can be as simple as filling the exhibit area with a variety of substrates and elevations for the animal to explore, to more complex measures such as providing puzzle feeders, scents and behavioural training.
Ronda Schwetz, deputy zoo director at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin in the United States, has a special interest in primates. For her recent trip to Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Schwetz brought with her a large contraption.
“This is an orang utan enrichment device,” she says, spinning the holey white tube inside its plain metal frame. “It was a nightmare to carry through the airport!”
The object does not look like much but feed a few peanuts and raisins into the tube and you’ve got a peanut-dispensing machine for orang utans to tinker with.
So instead of sitting around on the same tree, the orang utan get to experience something novel and stimulating. The effort and cost to create such a device, which is perfect for keeping our intelligent (ape) cousins busy, is minimal.
Schwetz says her apes thoroughly enjoy sitting around and cogitating on the best tool – finger or twig? – for prying out the goodies.
Schwetz and eight other American zoo keepers recently conducted a workshop at Zoo Negara, focusing on the care of orang utans.
A good deal of their spare time, however, was spent huddled around concrete, wires and spark-emitting welders, alongside staff from Zoo Negara and volunteers from Way Out Experiences (WOX).
A company which takes in paying volunteers embarking on adventure travel and conservation trips, WOX is a social enterprise, and channels its profits back into local conservation and animal welfare projects.
“I’ve been wanting to make a termite mound since like, forever!” admits Fareea Ma who is WOX chief executive officer and one of the main driving forces behind a variety of enrichment projects run in collaboration with the dedicated staff of Zoo Negara.
The termite mound began as a skeleton of robust metal wiring. After filling it with cement, holes were drilled and lined with PVC tubes, to be filled with honey and other such delights to be fished out using sticks. A cement base has already been built for the mound, in the chimpanzee enclosure.
Without some kind of enrichment, says Schwetz, animals in the kind of artificial settings found in zoos can get bored, resulting in negative behaviours such as endless pacing and over-grooming.
“They can sometimes become aggressive towards other animals or keepers, so this (enrichment) also helps prevent that,” she says.
Schwetz’s visit coincides with a historical moment for the zoo – it has just built its first enrichment centre. “In fact, I don’t know of any other zoo that has a dedicated and centralised enrichment centre where anyone can come and create enrichment plans for all the animals,” she declares.
Located amidst the winding, tree-lined avenues designed to guide visitors around the zoo, the centre took RM150,000 and two months to build, although the idea itself was mooted by WOX last November. The centre was opened on July 15.
Nurturing wild streaks
Developing an enrichment plan involves understanding how the animal behaves in its natural habitat. You need to be clear on what you want the animal to do, be it to hunt, forage, exercise or get mental stimulation, and then design the enrichment plan accordingly.
Take bullfrogs, for instance. The large, aggressive species common throughout northern United States inhabit water bodies such as swamps, ponds and lakes in which there are usually a myriad of obstacles and hollow tree trunks to be found. To simulate that habitat and create a more dynamic hunting environment for the frogs, zoo keeper Mohd Hafiz Thanabalan cut and strung together PVC pipes.
“When the frogs are hunting guppies in the tank, there will be more topographic features for them to go through. So they will get more exercise and be stimulated mentally,” explains the senior supervisor of the reptiles and amphibians section.
Hafiz is always on the lookout for enrichment ideas and draws inspiration from books, the Internet, workshops and other zoos.
Another simple enrichment activity which he has done for captive snakes is burying dead rats under the sand in the enclosures, instead of just tossing them in. This gives the snakes an opportunity to use their natural senses to find their prey.
The enrichment centre is certainly welcomed by Zoo Negara staff and volunteers, who currently have to improvise whenever they need space to plan and build enrichment equipment.
Having a dedicated facility will mean that everyone will have easy access to tools like drills and hoes, as well as a centralised location to research, plan and develop their enrichment projects.
Inside the enrichment centre, Ma opened some receptacles to reveal an assortment of bamboo, PVC pipes, cardboard and egg cartons. “These are all incredibly useful. There are all kinds of things we can make with this stuff,” she points out.
Adjoining the centre are two sheds – more storage space for anyone who wants to donate unwanted items. One is piled high with old tyres and a stack of newspapers, the other is filled with pipes and drilling tools.
The recent government grant to update a number of their enclosures aside, Zoo Negara, which is managed by the Malaysian Zoological Society, relies purely on gate collections. As such there are always limitations to funds and manpower – there is only so much one can do with a ratio of one staffer to every 50 animals. (The zoo houses over 5,000 animals). As such, the zoo is very much dependent on volunteers.
For volunteers, building enrichment items is a great way to unleash some creative genius, which can be done in the spirit of social camaraderie at the centre’s high-top work table.
A long, uninterrupted glass window gives volunteers at the work table a sweeping view of the zoo grounds outside as well as allow visitors to see the goings-on inside. For curious visitors, a series of display panels explain what the centre is all about.
For the staff and volunteers, enrichment is not just good for the animals but immensely satisfying for the people involved, according to Ma.
Keeping to standard
As the only Malaysian zoo that is party to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Zoo Negara has obligations to adhere to world class standards, hence it has engaged in a variety of enrichment projects since 2006. WOX and Zoo Negara have worked on dozens of such projects.
In one, fruits were frozen solid in giant ice cubes to form “fruit-cicles”. Ma points to a photograph illustrating how the treat was deployed: the frozen cube, tied on a string to a tree branch, was the centre of attraction for a small herd of elephants which had gathered around it, their trunks extended. “That kept them occupied for hours,” says Ma.
Other photographs showed how placing coconut husks in the porcupine enclosure made the animals climb and so, exercise their back legs. The staff and volunteers have also made a life-sized crocodile from cardboard and stuffed it with blood and meat, and fed it to the big cats.
There have been failed experiments, though. They once put a replica of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants in the tiger enclosure but the big cat never attacked the prey and instead, just prowled around in circles.
“Big cats pounce and suffocate their victims by biting their necks but erm ... Spongebob doesn’t have a neck,” says Ma.
Nonetheless, the incident serves to illustrate how relevant enrichment is. “It emphasises the drive this tiger had. It might have been born in captivity but it had a strong urge to carry out its natural instincts.” And that behaviour is something caged animals should not be deprived of.