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Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas (Enrichment) Story

Christmas and Thanksgiving are stressful days for me at the zoo.  On the one hand, I want to get in, get the job done, and then leave so I can go home and see family.  On a good day, I can have my assigned animals knocked out in an hour and a half.  At the same time, I really want to do a complete job, partially for the well-being of the animals, partially so there's less unfair mess left for my coworkers on the 26th.

One thing that I always struggle with is enrichment - to give it on Christmas, or not?

Enrichment hasn't come easy to me as a keeper.  I started off as a reptile keeper, where "enrichment" usually means moving the furniture around every once in a while.  Then, I spent most of my career working for various private zoo owners, all of whom were pretty dismissive of the whole concept.  Now, working in an AZA-accredited zoo, I know the importance of enrichment in promoting the the physical, mental, and emotional health of zoo animals.  I like to think that I implement a lot of it.  But sometimes old habits die hard.

Some enrichment has the potential to be dangerous - toxic, a choking hazard, a shatter hazard, or whatever.  Some will backfire and stress or upset or frighten the animal.  And some will be completely ignored.  Actually, in my experience, a lot of it is ignored.  And so, coming from a line of mentors who thought of enrichment as ratty paper bags and cardboard boxes strewn around an enclosure, I've always struggled with the question, "Is this really worth it?"

Usually, I decide yes, yes it is.  Even in my hurry on Christmas Day yesterday, I still made a point of enriching the carnivores, the primates, and the parrots.  Then, I went home with a clean conscience.  If I'd loitered at the zoo for a little longer, I could have gotten home in time to have missed my least favorite part of the Christmas season, the endless repetitions of the movie A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story, for those six of you who haven't seen it, is a story of a young man's quest to obtain the ultimate Christmas present - a Red Rider BB Gun - in the face of constant admonishments that he'll shoot his eye out.  When I walked in, it was the tail end of the movie - Christmas morning - when presents were being distributed to Ralphie and his brother.  I'd seen this scene over and over again.  Today, however, enrichment was fresh on my mind, and it took on a new meaning.

The first present Ralphie gets is a horrible set of pink rabbit pajamas of a sort that the eight-year-old me would have rather died than be seen in public.  Ralphie appears to agree, and his face has a complete "This is killing me" look as he is forced to wear them.  There's a fair bit of enrichment that is like this, I suspect - it makes the giver feel good about themselves, but does nothing beneficial for the animal, and they would just as soon do without it.  An example of this for me would be giving a bowling ball to our kangaroos.  I watched for half and hour.  They didn't touch it.  Granted, that was enrichment in itself - they had a choice, they simply chose not to do anything - but it really didn't do anything for them.

Ralphie's most precious gift, his beloved BB gun, is his final present.  He takes it outside and... shoots his eye out (well, not really, but it comes close).  There's some enrichment like this.  It's really fun and the animals will love it and play with it extensively, sometimes to the point where they risk hurting themselves or another animal.  We have a jaguar with a very short "approved enrichment" list because she gets so excited about anything... I mean anything... that she'll eventually try to eat it.  Only gifts that are edible or 100% NOT-edible (again, the bowling ball) go to her.

So what's the ideal?  Nothing for Ralphie, but his brother does get a toy fire truck, which he absolutely loves.  Unlike the pajamas or the gun, it's a gift that was carefully chosen exactly for a young child, both in terms of how much fun it is and how safe it is.  Despite my initial misgivings, since I've started doing enrichment, I've found plenty of items like that.  Puzzle feeders for monkeys.  Floating pull toys for otters.  Mirrors for birds.  It's a list that I'm constantly adding to as I learn from other keepers.

Christmas is about giving, not just receiving.  The same could be said about zookeeping.  The goal should be to give the best care possible to your animals.  Often, that includes enrichment; today, I do enrichment for animals that I never would have considered it for years ago, like snakes and tarantulas.  The important thing, however, is to make sure what you are giving them is both fun and safe.

After all, no one wants to have to tell their curator that a spider monkey just shot his eye out.

Merry Christmas!

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