“Why is there a Mr. Potato Head in that exhibit?” It’s a question we often hear from curious visitors. Our answer starts with the big word “enrichment.” It’s described by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (or AZA, of which the Seattle Aquarium is an accredited member) as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare.”
Essentially, enrichment is an opportunity for animals to satisfy their behavioral needs, optimize their level of mental stimulation, and create a rich, variable environment. Aside from being a requirement of AZA accreditation standards, it can be a lot of fun!
For instance, bubbles and other changeable features mix up the look of the harbor seal exhibit. Ice toys exercise our mammals’ minds and bodies as they work to get the frozen treats inside. Hard hats and fake kelp provide something for those busy sea otter paws to manipulate. But it’s important to remember that good animal husbandry is also a form of enrichment. Interactions with a diver, a gravel wash, or a change in lighting can be a stimulating and varied experience for our mammals, birds and fish alike.
Enrichments are designed and carried out on a varied schedule to elicit specific goals; for example, to stimulate a natural nesting behavior or to encourage foraging. They’re offered to invertebrates once a week; fish twice a week; octopuses three times a week; and birds and mammals every two days. They fall into five major categories:
- Environmental. Example: water temperature changes for fish to stimulate seasonal behaviors like mating.
- Sensory. Example: ice, spices and even music added to the harbor seal exhibit.
- Food. Example: Delivering food to our shorebirds in multiple ways—scattered around the exhibit, raked under the sand or hidden in PVC pipe.
- Behavioral/social. Example: Opportunities for interaction with other animals (including humans) such as our octopus blind date event every February.
- Toy/manipulative. Example: Buoys, boomer balls, Frisbees and other objects for our fur seals to manipulate with their mouths and flippers.
In order to provide safe, appropriate and effective enrichments, our life sciences staff must have a deep understanding of the animals’ natural behaviors. That includes both the species’ natural history as a whole and the unique behaviors of the individuals or communities in our care. Enrichment for a fur seal will look different from a sea otter and even more so from a cuttlefish.
Come see enrichment in action on your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!