Imagine that every day you were told when and what you had to eat, when you could and could not go outside and where and when you must go to bed! You'd get pretty bored and fed up after a while. Well this is the reality for many of our pets and captive wildlife. Being kind to an animal isn't just about looking after their physical needs but also stimulating them mentally and challenging them. Having all your decisions made for you with no choice is not a nice way to live.
So how do you overcome the boredom and monotony of daily captive animal life? The answer is enrichment! Enrichment can come in many forms and does not have to be expensive or difficult to be successful. Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end of this blog for some examples of enrichment!
This type of enrichment is the one we are all the most familiar with. Giving your dog a treat is a form of enrichment! But you can make taste enrichment an even more interesting game. For example stuffing a kong with half of your dogs daily dry food, some treats and some smears of peanut butter can keep them interested for hours. Be creative and mix it up!
Here at the bear rescue centre we provide multiple food toys, including bamboo feeders, that can be stuffed with delicious treats. Every time we feed these treats we put a different combination of goodies inside, including dried fruit, nuts, honey and jam, to keep the bears guessing every day. Similar toys are available for birds, cats and other species.
Most animals have a better sense of smell than humans, and are constantly using their noses to make decisions. A common source of enrichment for captive wildlife is smears or scent trails. This can involve adding some cordial to water and pouring it among the enclosures or simply smearing small amounts of something delicious on tree trunks and logs. Some zoos take the lions and other big cats for a walk through the empty zebra enclosures or put zebra faeces in their enclosures to help provide extra stimulus.
While I don't recommend covering your back yard with horse poo these same principals can be applied to cats and dogs. Smearing some vegemite on the trees in your yard will provide sniffing enjoyment for your dog, or sprinkling cat nip around the house will cause a kitten frenzy!
Most dogs love squeaky toys because they produce a sound which is a form of enrichment. Cats also love toys that rattle or jingle. You can even play music to your pets - but do some research first because studies show different species do prefer different music! Here at the centre we use polypipes filled with balls that rattle when the bears play - they LOVE them!
Structural enrichment is extremely important for a healthy and sane animal mind. Cats in particular need high perches to make them feel safe and secure. It can be as simple as pushing a table against a window so your cat can sit high and observe the world. Sandpits, pools and kennels can provide great structural enrichment for dogs. The bears love their platforms and hammocks - they provide perfect sleeping spots as well!
Toys and Browse
All animals love toys - they can be as simple as a ball or stick to play with but it can help keep them occupied. Toys can also provide comfort, some dogs like to sleep with the same toy at night. Browse is another great form of enrichment particularly for captive wildlife and exotic pets. Giving your bird a bottle brush branch or providing koalas with malaleuca helps give them the choice to eat it (or destroy it) and provides change. Just make sure you research non-toxic natural browse for your pets.
You can even combine structural, taste and smell enrichment by hanging toys up high or placing food on ledges around the house. When I had my macaw, Zazu, I used to make toys he could destroy out of toilet rolls and shredded paper - they were cheap, easy and he loved the mess he could make with them! I also rolled toilet rolls in honey then in seed which could be strung up in the cage and eaten.
Many animals love to socialize, both with their own species and other species (like humans!). Taking friendly dogs to dog parks is a great way for them to make new friends, see new sights and smells and just have a general good time! Cat's are not naturally as sociable but may enjoy some human attention. Birds are an extremely social species (hence why they live in flocks) and it is very important that they have the opportunity to socialize with other birds or humans on a regular basis.
Bears are not naturally social animals but the bears at our centre are kept in social groups and they usually get along. The social structure of our groups helps provide enrichment to the bears, and they love sleeping together, wrestling and sometimes even kissing!
Freedom of choice
For safety and practical reasons most captive animals have to be restricted in some ways. We can't just let our dogs wander the streets as they please because they could get injured, nor can we let wild bears roam the village. But we can provide some ability to make choices, for example when walking your dog if they want to go left instead of right why not? Is the walk for you or for them? And providing multiple areas of access to the house and yard allows your pets to choose where they want to be and what they want to do.
And remember a change is as good as a holiday, taking your dog on a completely new walking route, rearranging your bird cage or swapping enclosures for zoo animals can help keep their day to day lives more interesting.
I hope this has given you some ideas for ways to enrich your furry friends lives! Feel free to comment with your favourite enrichment treat for your pet and share your ideas!