Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Will Work for FoodEnrichment programs have been around in zoos for years. I remember first hearing about this concept on a television special which involved Alan Alda helping a zookeeper smear salad dressing on palm fronds for a pair of polar bears. There was video of the bears being released into their habitat and sniffing and playing with the fronds -- one even carried one into the water with her and floated on her back with the palm between her paws. Who knew a condiment could produce so much fun?
As I was beginning to study primates at the time, I was fascinated and in love with this concept. It was great to see that people were finding such simple ways to improve the lives of zoo animals. Later, during my studies of chimps at a local zoo, I watched in awe as they flipped through magazines, tearing out every third or fourth page, made toys out of tires, and ran around their enclosure finding chunks of apples and bananas hidden in the grass.
It didn't take long for the shelter world to pick this up, and for the dog toy industry to follow. Many shelters feed some or all of their dogs from red rubber toys with a hole in the middle called "Kongs." We do this for our high energy, kennel stressed, and long term dogs at the EBSPCA. It is loads of fun to watch our dogs push their Kongs along the kennels and habitats trying to get the last piece of kibble out. Some learn to pick up the toy and drop it from a few inches above the ground, others make exceptional use of their paws.
I am constantly hearing new stories about enrichment techniques being applied by various shelters around the country. Some dogs are getting extra stimulation from scent enrichment: vanilla, citrus or other solutions sprayed on kennel walls or on toys -- quite similar to the salad dressing the Polar Bears were given. I recently learned of a shelter that gives their dogs coconuts. The smell is strong enough that most dogs will play with them, but few succeed in opening them. Those that do get a tasty reward. Many shelters now take donations of toilet paper rolls, which can be filled with cat treats, folded on both ends, and shredded by the cats.
I'm pleased to see that these techniques are becoming common place in zoos and animal shelters. Both house animals for varying time periods, both work under budgets that are fairly tight more often than not, and both have staff that love their charges and constantly strive to improve their lives while under their care. Kennel enrichment empowers staff and volunteers to help improve their animals' well-being without putting a large strain on the organization's budget. This trend benefits captive wildlife from injured wildcats on their way to re-release, to zoo-born elephants who can never safely leave captivity. It benefits shelter animals whether days away from adoption, or in protective custody for months awaiting trial. It even benefits the household pet, lucky to have a home, but perhaps a bit antsy due to the ease with which her daily meals arrive.
Everyone can share in the joy involved in watching animals work and play as well -- buy your dog one of the many work-to-eat toys available in pet stores, hide some kibble in a crevice of your cat's bed, or ask your local shelter or zoo if they accept enrichment donations. You will most likely witness animals doing things you never thought they were capable of, and you'll know you're helping that animal sleep a little better thanks to some good old fashioned brain exercise.