rhinoceros eating leaves at the zoo
Zoos are a lot different now from the old days when bored animals paced around bare cages. A lot of that is due to what’s called enrichment, and there’s a lot pet owners can learn from what zoos do.

"We provide enrichment to our animals every day," says Tad Schoffner of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "We want to evoke natural behaviors from our animals, so we need to determine what those behaviors are. What do wild animals do in the wild? What takes up their day?"

One answer to that question is that a big part of an animal’s day is taken up finding food. Schoffner saw this when the gorillas’ diet was changed from one based around a biscuit-type food to a more natural one that is mostly greens.

"What we found out is that we moved their diet consumption time from maybe 10 percent of their day to 60 percent of their day," he says. "That 60 percent actually matches up with what has been seen with gorillas in the wild, how much time they take to find food."

So one thing keepers do is figure out how to present food to make mealtime take longer. Spreading food around the exhibit or putting it inside an object provides mental stimulation — figuring out how to find it or get at it — and prompts more physical activity than eating out of a bowl.

Feeding is closely tied to another aspect of enrichment: Exhibit design should also allow for natural behaviors. "We have older bear exhibits that were originally made with all concrete. We did renovations to create dirt pockets so we can bury things for them," he says. "Bears have such a keen sense of smell that they’ll smell food buried six inches or a foot down."

But food-seeking isn’t the only natural activity keepers try to encourage. Apes, for example, build a nest every night to sleep in. "We provide materials for them to create a nest every night — everything from burlap to straw to cardboard. It’s a very natural behavior for all the great apes."

As zookeepers have learned, the animals don’t care if something looks natural, as long as it serves the purpose. Burlap for a nest or a meal dug out of a cardboard box engages their natural instincts, and that matters more than specifically replicating the appearance of the wild.

grizzly bear playing at the zoo

Try This at Home

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo holds a yearly event called Creature Comforts that highlights enrichment activities and encourages pet owners to think the same way about domesticated animals’ natural abilities and how to engage them.

It can be as simple as considering why a pet enjoys certain types of play. "Understand why they’re reacting to you the way they’re reacting, because if you learn about their behavior, you can even do cooler stuff with them," Schoffner says.

Think about their wild relatives, he says, and you’ll see why a dog is excited by a squeaky toy: "When your dog hears that squeaking sound, that kicks in its wild instincts back to its wolf cousins: Oh, this is something I should catch!"

Same with cats going crazy for a feather toy — it engages the predatory instinct they share with a lion or leopard. "The only difference in cat behavior that I find is the size," he says. Whether you’re talking about tigers or house cats, "they have the same instincts; they react to the same things."

This means that much of what keepers do for zoo animals applies to your pets as well.

  • Think about how to extend feeding time with food toys and puzzles — and don’t give up if your pet doesn’t like the first one. Try another, because individual animals are different. Schoffner recalls one time he gave the chimpanzees the same gallon jug with food in it, and each one approached it differently: "One went at it with brute force and used her canines to rip it open. Another one tried to suck everything out through the spout. One chimp — who was the smartest of the bunch — what she did was take that jug and pound it on the ground till everything was broken up inside, and she poured it into her hand and ate it that way."
  • Taking a lesson from good exhibit design, provide high places, like tall cat trees, for your cats — that’s where they naturally prefer to be, and maybe they won’t use your countertops to satisfy that urge instead.
  • When it comes to toys, it’s important to switch things around, because novelty is a crucial feature of enrichment. "A rule of thumb is, if the same object is in there for more than two days, it’s become furniture — it’s not enrichment," he says.
  • Don’t get discouraged when not every idea works out. "We’ve had our aquarist go to great lengths trying to make very complicated puzzle feeders for the octopus, and it’ll interact with it and lose interest for whatever reason," Schoffner says. "Or else something that has taken days to design and put together, they’ve solved in a matter of 20 seconds."
  • Expect the unexpected. Even if an animal does something other than you predicted, it’s still enrichment. Schoffner tells of a time they put a coconut in an exhibit with a three-banded armadillo, a small armored mammal that can roll up into a ball about the size of a coconut. "He got visibly excited and was trying to mate with the coconut," he says. "It turned out to be very stimulating to him, obviously, but it wasn’t what we expected to happen."