Kyle Banton-Jones is a zookeeper, enrichment and animal welfare professional and creator of wildenrichment.com. He has worked with animals for more than 15 years and has a passion for creating enrichment items for animals who benefit from them both physically and mentally. He explores enrichment and its link to animal welfare in our latest blog.
One of the most important things that can be done in any captive wild animal facility is to track an enrichment programme over time to ensure its effectiveness. This generally involves monitoring how well the animal is interacting with their enrichment on a daily basis, and comparing the behavioural outcomes with what is seen in the wild. While this is an extremely important practice that is absolutely necessary for the long term success of the enrichment programme, it is very different from evaluating and tracking the overall welfare of an animal. In this article we will analyse these differences and discuss how to ensure optimal welfare for an animal in an enrichment programme.
Welfare Implications of Enrichment
Enrichment should be created and administered to an animal based on their natural behaviours. Establishing a goal behaviour which the enrichment provision is targeting is important to identify the desired behavioural outcomes. For example, if foraging behaviours (the amount of time an animal spends looking for food) are the desired outcome in hoofstock, providing trickle feeder devices which encourage these behaviours can be an effective addition to an enrichment programme.
It is also important to have variety in an animal’s enrichment programme through trying different types of enrichment to see what works, as well as assessing safety. This enrichment needs to be monitored and scrutinised heavily before being adapted into regular day-to day rotation. So, in this section we will be talking about the benefits which appropriate enrichment can have on a variety of animals.
Firstly, one of the most pronounced effects that enrichment provision can have on an animal is a reduction or cessation of self destructive or stereotypic behaviours. These behaviours can, in some cases, be thought of as having a direct link to compromised welfare. However, based on the research out there on this subject, it is important to note that enrichment has the largest effect on these negative behaviours when they first start to occur, because long-term negative behaviours can become resistant to change and may be impossible to reduce. Enrichment provision has the potential to affect these negative behaviours by allowing the animal to adapt to its captive environment through allowing them to express natural behaviours and face challenges similar to what their wild counterparts may face on a day to day basis.
Not only does environmental enrichment have the potential to reduce or stop negative behaviours brought on by stress, but it also has many other potential physical and mental benefits as well.
In rats, enrichment was actually shown to induce an optimistic cognitive bias when compared to their counterparts that live in a barren environment. Basically this means that enrichment was able to change the “mental lens” through which the rat viewed its surroundings, giving it a more positive outlook on all the stimulus it was presented with. Another fascinating aspect of this study was that, when the rats housed in a barren environment, were switched to an enriched environment, their cognitive bias changed with the move from pessimistic or negative to optimistic. This study further reinforces the fact that enrichment has a profound effect on the way an animal is interpreting its environment.
Living in an enriched environment may also play a significant role in the effectiveness that a training programme may have on an animal. In a study conducted on pigs, researchers found that pigs housed in an enriched environment learned new behaviours and solved a maze puzzle significantly quicker than their counterparts housed in a barren environment. Not only do animals learn more rapidly in an enriched environment, but they also are more willing to participate in training and enrichment sessions than individuals without access to enrichment.
It appears that by affecting the metal state of an animal, enrichment in turn affects the physical state of an animal as well. There are several studies outlining how enrichment can increase activity levels of many animals, from pigs to orang-utans. One of the main ways enrichment can cause an animal to be significantly more active is the fact that food based enrichment can significantly increase foraging time and it can make the animal’s environment as a whole significantly more interactive and challenging.
It is clear that enrichment can not only prevent, reduce or completely stop negative behaviours, benefit animals mentally through changing their cognitive bias, help speed the learning process and even significantly increase activity levels in a variety of species. Now that we have established these potential benefits of enrichment, we can now talk about a few strategies to start to implement an enrichment programme for an animal.
Enrichment Evaluation Vs. Welfare Evaluation
Now there are many scenarios where having a good enrichment programme will result in adequate welfare for an animal, but there are many situations where this is not the case. For example, when an animal is kept in an exhibit that is nowhere near sufficient for them, they may have a great enrichment programme but still have very poor welfare. It is because of situations like this that evaluating animal welfare in conjunction with enrichment evaluation becomes an extremely important practice.
The major difference between enrichment evaluation and welfare evaluation is that welfare evaluations are really taking the entire day to day life of an animal and boiling it down to an overall score, and enrichment evaluation is just evaluating how an animal is interacting with their enrichment and environment. In order to do a proper welfare evaluation you need to take into consideration the five domains of animal welfare: Environment, Nutrition, Health, Behaviour and Mental State. Although enrichment and training make up a large part of some of these domains, when all five domains are looked at together, it really encompasses everything the animal is experiencing in its day to day life, and will allow you to make evidence based welfare decisions throughout the animal’s life.
Get to Know your Animal
One of the best ways to shift your focus from only doing enrichment evaluation to doing a more holistic welfare evaluation is to start to understand what the animal in question is doing throughout the day and not just when it is interacting with enrichment or when you are there to observe it. One of the best ways to do this in my opinion is to begin to create a behaviour baseline for that animal.
A behaviour baseline is basically an outline of all the natural behaviours an animal may undertake in the wild, along with how often these behaviours are shown, and when they are most commonly seen too. For example a simplistic behaviour baseline may look like this:
- 9am-11am: Foraging for food
- 11-3pm: Social Interaction with other animals
- 4-6pm: Foraging for food
- 6pm-9am: Rest and sleep
This behaviour baseline should be as complicated as it needs to be and should track behaviours that are relevant to the animal in question and relevant to the enrichment programme as a whole. The idea of this baseline is not to make it complex, it is to get an understanding of how the animal is spending its time/ interacting with its environment so you can make accurate and informed decisions about their welfare and the behaviours which the animal has the opportunity to express Therefore creating a behaviour baseline is often the first thing I recommend when assessing animal welfare and before developing or revamping an enrichment programme. I think it’s an absolutely crucial step that will give you more information and insight into what the animal actually requires behaviourally than almost anything else you can do.
Enrichment evaluation is just one of the many tools that are used to help determine an animal’s overall welfare state, but is only effective in doing so when used in conjunction with other tools. Every animal care institution needs to have formal evaluation methods that they use to evaluate all of the welfare domains that encompass the animal’s full day to day experience. The main overarching benefit when fully understanding the day to day life of an animal is that it allows an institution to become proactive instead of reactive and will allow them to anticipate problems before they happen or when they are in their infancy. Practises like looking objectively at an animal’s environment will give you insight into where exhibit renovation funds need to be allocated and having that behaviour baseline might allow you to catch negative behaviours before they develop and become habituated. Animal welfare evaluation allows you to control an animal’s welfare state as opposed to being controlled by it and is a crucial practice to ensure optimal animal welfare over the long term.
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