Providing enrichment for the animals, big and small

When you walk through the Zoo, you might see a number of unexpected objects in the exhibits: cardboard boxes, paper lunch bags or even a plastic slide. These items are used for enrichment. As keepers, it’s our job to make sure the animals we care for stay healthy, both physically and mentally. By providing the animals with enrichment items, we can encourage them to behave as they would in the wild.

For example, by giving the tigers boxes with food inside, we hope to evoke the natural behaviors involved with hunting. They must find the boxes using their sense of smell, and then they have to work to get the food, using their claws and teeth the same way they would in nature. This helps keep their minds sharp and active.

Seeing an animal interact with their enrichment can be very exciting for our visitors! With our larger animals, their enrichment items are often very clear to see; it’s hard to miss the barrels hanging in the elephant barn or the termite mound in the orangutan exhibit.

But what do we do for smaller animals?

If you have been to the Zoo during the summer months, you may have had a chance to meet some of our education animals. These are animals that aren’t on exhibit, but rather come out for special programs where people are able to meet them up close. These are the same animals that are featured in our other education programs, such as ZooMobiles, ZooClasses and birthday parties. When they aren’t out on programs, it is my job to make sure they are receiving the same care as our other animals, and this includes providing them with (size appropriate) enrichment.

My favorite part of the day is coming up with new and exciting ways to exercise our education animals’ minds. When coming up with enrichment, I want to think about what the animal would do in the wild and try to bring that behavior out.


For example, our armadillo Doug loves to dig for insects. I sometimes will give him a huge pile of wood chips, pine shavings, and cat litter with mealworms tucked inside. To get the worms, he has to dig though the pile, which he does with enthusiasm.

IMG_0300Our hedgehogs and short-tailed opossum also love to forage for insects. By hanging paper towel tubes in their enclosures with meal worms inside, we encourage interaction with their surroundings.

While food is always a good motivator for an animal to get active, it’s not the only way to enrich an animal. Sometimes a bag filled with paper is enough, or a box sprayed with perfume.  The unfamiliar scent is interesting and therefore will encourage exploration. Plus, boxes and paper bags make great new hiding places. Changing the arrangement of their enclosure or adding new furniture can be a great form of enrichment as well.


There is never a slow day working at the Zoo, and making sure the animals have the opportunity to use their minds is one of our many responsibilities (it’s also one of the best). It’s a chance for the animals to express themselves and a chance for us to really get to know each animal’s personality on an individual level.

Big or small, enrichment is a vital part of the day for every animal at the Z

–Hannah Comstock, Zoo Keeper

The eastern hog-nose snake: what the animal signs don’t tell you

Our eastern hog-nose snake animal sign next to its exhibit at the Zoo will tell you the snakes’ natural range, diet, threat level and some other interesting facts. What no sign can convey is how theatrical these snakes really are: if there was an Academy Award for the most dramatic snake, the hog-nose snake would go home with the Oscar.

Photo by Jeff LeClere
Photo by Jeff LeClere

If a hog-nose snake is threatened, it has quite the repertoire of movements and behaviors to distract and evade an attacker. The first tactic the hog-nose snake will use is to flatten out its head, giving it the appearance of having a hood, like a cobra. It then will take a very deep breath to inflate itself and then release the breath causing a loud hissing sound. If this had not deterred its irritant, the hog-nosed snake will strike. The snake does not open its mouth to bite, it only strikes at the attacker by hitting the attacker with its nose and face. A lot of other snakes will use these same types of scare tactics to ward off an attacker; however, other snakes will typically bite when they strike. The rest of the hog-nose snake’s dramatic tactics are specific to this species.

Photo by Amanda Davis
Photo by Amanda Davis

When hooding up, hissing and mock-biting will not deter a threat, the hog-nose snake will flail around, appearing to be having convulsions. The convulsive fit includes the snake thrashing around with its mouth open with its tongue hanging out. This performance is ended by the hog-nosed snake rolling onto its back and playing dead with its mouth open and tongue hanging out. The snake will even go as far to appear to have blood coming from its mouth and anus, as well as defecating and excreting a foul odor. When the snake is picked up, it will be limp. If the snake is set back down with its belly down, it will quickly flip over so it is upside down on its back again. After some time has passed, the snake will pick its head up and check for danger. If the threat is gone, it will roll over and scurry away.

The eastern hog-nose snake gives the best performance when evading an intruder. There are other snakes out there that have their own tactics when being confronted by a threat, but none give the convincing dramatic performance like that of the eastern hog-nosed snake. The eastern hog-nose snake in the ECO center at the Zoo typically will not put on this dramatic performance because they have a pretty easygoing life and don’t have the need to act out. They are capable of it, however, and would give the performance of a lifetime if needed.

Learn more about eastern hog-nose snakes and other species of reptiles and amphibians at Snakes and Friends Day this Saturday, August 22!

–Amanda Davis, Zoo Keeper