Monday, March 10, 2014

Keeping Captive Animals Wild through Enrichment

Those who know me personally are always hearing of my crazy, humorous, and sometimes disgusting exploits as the animal curator at Briar Bush Nature Center. And many tell me I should share these stories on this blog. Today, I thought I would give you a short behind-the-scenes look at just one aspect of what it means to care for a collection of captive animals, and how you can do the same at home for your pets.

The animals we have at Briar Bush are mostly surrendered pets, with a few non-releasable wildlife species, such as Henry the opossum, whom you met last month. No matter what the species of animal, from the wildest owl to the tamest rat, all captive animals need to exercise both their bodies and their brains, because a life in captivity is not as engaging as a life in the wild. In the wild animals spend their time looking for food, defending their territories, and engaging with others of their species. In captivity, food is always in the same bowl, the territory is established, and not all pets have someone around all day to interact with, human or otherwise. When we stimulate the brains of our beloved animals, it is called enrichment

What does enrichment look like? Many of you already have enrichment for your pets: that Kong for your dog, the catnip mouse for your cat, and even that plant in your fish tank all enrich their lives. The best forms of enrichment mimic some sort of behavior that is natural for that animal in the wild. Cats like to hunt, so we give them toys to pounce on. Parrots use their beaks to manipulate objects for food, so we give them complex toys. (For great enrichment ideas for parrots, check out Bird Geek Michele's blog rats like to make nests, so we give them cozy places to hide and things to shred.
Sisters Spot and Starr, enjoying their cozy hammock. 
They like to stuff it with shredded newspaper I provide to give it that extra homey touch.

At Briar Bush, a lot of the enrichment I provide centers around the natural behavior of foraging, or looking for food. Instead of just placing a plate or bowl in front of them, I trigger their natural instincts to find their own food. Enrichment for a leopard tortoise named Torti looks like this:
A pesticide-free lawn on which to dine! As an added bonus, Torti is receiving much-needed vitamin D and UVB from the natural sunlight as she grazes. And as an added bonus to the homeowner, she provides a mowing and fertilization service!

Enrichment for a turkey vulture named Ralph looks like this:
I call it RATBALL.

Ratball works off of a vulture's natural tendency to stick its head and beak inside of things in order to get food. What you may not know about vultures is that they are extremely intelligent. You've gotta keep uping your game to keep a vulture occupied! 
Ratball version 1.0 was just a mouse placed inside the ball. 
    Child's play (or rather chick's play). 
Version 2.0: a large rat that I had to really work to stuff inside the ball. 
    Apparently it wasn't work to remove it. 
Version 3.0: A rat burrito-wrapped inside a piece of bed sheet.
    Silly human, just pull the rat out of the end of the burrito.
Version 4.0 (seen above): Tie the rat inside of the sheet like a little drawstring purse inside the ball.
    Now we're getting somewhere! 

This one took Ralph a while to figure out, but eventually he used his powerful beak to just rip a hole right through the sheet to extract the rat, much like he would rip open a carcass in the wild. Today I am up to Ratball version 6.0, in which the bed sheet has been replaced with a much tougher washcloth.

And enrichment for a pair of red-eared sliders looks like this:
Yes, enrichment for the turtles meant death for the goldfish, but red-eared sliders don't eat turtle pellets in the wild, they eat living things. And whenever these two are fed live prey, they move faster and are more active than I ever see them at any other time. Suddenly their days go from boring and mundane to exciting and purposeful. That reptilian brain kicks in to hyper drive and they love every minute of it. Well maybe the male slider a little less, as he didn't catch a single one of the 8 fish. Pellets are more his speed.

Providing enrichment for the animals under my care at work and for your animals at home isn't just entertaining for us humans, but it's a matter of physical and mental health for our furry, scaly, feathery, slippery, and exoskeletony friends. And as you've seen with the case of Ralph the turkey vulture, providing enrichment can be a challenge for your brain as well! This week put your brain to the test to challenge your pets at home with some enrichment. Don't forget to share the video of your enrichment on my Facebook page...the internet loves cute animal videos.

1 comment:

  1. What? No comments?? This was a great posting! I had a twinge about the goldfish in the pond, but...they ARE sold as feeder fish after all. I would think that a wild animal in a zoo would become quickly bored - what better ways to liven them up? Think of all the ways that your doggie or moggie can get their "wild" on. Great blog, thanks Nature Geek!