Animal Husbandry: Enriching the Lives of the Species in Our Care

This article first ran in our ZooNooz June 2022 edition.

Environmental enhancements allow animals to demonstrate their species-typical behaviors and improve their overall well-being.

If you’ve been to the Zoo, you’ve likely seen everything from Christmas trees to giant boomer balls to frozen fish ice blocks in habitats. These items are used for environmental enrichment, also called behavioral enrichment, which provides physical and mental stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior for all the Zoo’s animals. Environmental enhancements allow animals to demonstrate their species-typical behaviors and improve their overall well-being. Enrichment is just as important to animal welfare as proper nutrition and veterinary care are. Keepers implement a variety of species-specific enrichment programs to maintain the highest level of animal welfare. Based on the animals’ natural history, opportunities are provided for the individual or group to express their natural behaviors. This is accomplished by integrating multiple approaches including, but not limited to: varied feeding strategies, cognitive challenges, social interactions, complex and dynamic environments, and varied sensory opportunities. Providing environmental and behavioral enrichment allows the animal to respond positively to potential stressors and have an active role in making their own rewarding choices.


Hoofstock Zoologist Kat Kleinschmidt tells us rhinos use mud wallows in their natural ranges to cool off and protect their skin from bugs and the sun. “Here at Seneca Park Zoo, we always ensure Jiwe’s mud wallow is filled with the right amount of dirt and water so he can get as muddy as he wants, whenever he wants!”

Kat continues, “Giraffes use their very long, prehensile tongues to maneuver around thorns to get to the leaves off some of their favorite trees in Africa. To encourage this natural behavior, we create puzzle feeders that we put produce and hay into, so they are mentally and physically stimulated trying to get the food out.”

Understanding the history of an animal as well as its behaviors in nature is essential to providing the correct type of enrichment. Keepers have a variety of sources to educate themselves, including networking with other facilities, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), spending time observing the animals, and working together to build new enrichment toys. The options are endless!

For small carnivores, enrichment is quite different. Zoologist Brian Sheets says of river otters, “They really love live prey. This is the best enrichment we can give them because they must hunt for them: a natural behavior.” Brian stops by S&R Bait and Tackle in Irondequoit for a half pound of minnows weekly, which is completely funded by our ZooParent program. “They usually throw in extra because they like supporting the Zoo,” he says.

Enrichments are not provided on a predictable schedule. Brian mixes it up, keeping the animals hunting and searching like they would do in nature. “They check the rocks daily to see ‘Did I miss one?’” Brian continues. “They never know when they go out, if there is going to be live fish out there or not. The last thing I want to do is dump the fish out in front of them so they can see – I want them to have to search like they would in their natural range.”

Giraffe Closeup - May 2022 - Kat Kleinschmidt 2
Photo by Kat Kleinschmidt

Brian also offers enrichment designed to provide comfort, like adding a wood wool substrate to the habitat’s hollow logs to give the otters a nesting place. Keepers also provide ice blocks, shade areas, and fans to keep animals comfortable in all seasons.

“Not every animal reacts to all forms of enrichment,” says Brian. He continues, “Our river otters have never really shown any interest in things like olfactory or smell enrichment as opposed to animals like the big cats which typically love that sort of stuff.”

Just like people, every animal is different and unique in their own way and has their own levels of intelligence, cooperativeness, and physical ability that can make it easier or more difficult to develop different behaviors and skills. For example, sea lions Mary Lou and Daley tend to pick things up quickly, while Bob can be resistant and harder to work with.

Zookeeper Sue Rae says of Bob, “A lot of his behaviors we captured, meaning he did something and we clicked the training clicker and gave him food.” This begins the process of the animal associating a specific behavior with rewards so that they will start to learn to repeat it. Keepers “capture” a behavior by noticing an animal behaving in a way they want to reinforce, whether it is something that helps in healthcare or an act that is fun or stimulating to the animal, and immediately reacting to it in a positive way.

Red Panda Seneca Park Zoo
Photo by Wayne Smith

When it comes to animals that usually means a food reward. This sort of technique is used frequently with animals who are more resistant or stubborn when it comes to husbandry, like sea lion Bob, who will surprise his keepers by doing a behavior on his own terms.

“When you do your enrichment, the goal is to elicit their natural behavior,” says Zoo keeper Heidi Beifus. “You may see us use a lot of boxes with animals by placing food inside, because we’re trying to simulate them diving into a carcass and ripping and tearing to get to it.” Heidi continues, “You want to use all the animals’ senses; you don’t want to do the same thing over and over, like always giving them food for enrichment. You want to give them something that they can see, smell, touch, taste, hear and keep cycling through.”

What about smaller animals?

We caught up with Zoologist Ryan Statt to talk naked mole rat enrichment. “We’re totally hands-off with them. They are pretty sensitive animals,” says Ryan. He continues, “If it’s something that maybe smells too stinky, or if it’s too wet, it’s not good for them; they love paper towels and anything they can shred and burrow into.” Ryan explains, “Paper serves two purposes with naked mole rats: enrichment of the shredding and for privacy to hide under.”

For tips and help when caring for a species, keepers heavily rely on their peers at other zoos and AZA institutions. We are in contact with “Knoxville Zoo, which is where the naked mole rats came from,” says Ryan. “They’ve been a great resource, as is the Smithsonian.” Ryan continues, “Buffalo Zoo and Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse are two regional zoos I often talk to. It is constant networking. We do not rely on just one zoo or two zoos, but all zoos, depending on what we’re trying to find out.”

River Otter Seneca Park Zoo
Photo by Amanda Lindley
Photo by Walter Brooks
Naked Mole Rat at Seneca Park Zoo
Photo by Kristen Matteo