Autumn 2001
ehavioural Enrichment

aptive Animals.



Catherine Whittington

Behavioural enrichment is an important aspect of animal husbandry, which works towards making the life of any captive animal as natural and as stimulating as possible, by allowing the creature change and variety in its environment.     Good animal husbandry and behavioural enrichment involves creating as near to natural conditions as possible, in order to induce as near to natural behaviour as possible in the captive specimens.


The more an animal moves around, the stronger its muscles and bones become.     Likewise, the more its mind is stimulated, the more alert it remains.     A fit, active, alert animal is a healthy animal.


There are four aims of behavioural enrichment:


1.            To preserve and conserve natural behaviour  - eg searching for food in a particular manner, digging, climbing, browsing, foraging, caching etc.


2.            To eliminate or reduce levels of stress, abnormal or stereotypic behaviour, such as pacing, rocking, over-eating, aggression, hyper-sexuality or over-grooming.


3.            To increase the behavioural diversity of the animal by giving it a variety of different things that it can do and choices it can make, each day.


4.            To increase the animals’ activity levels and thereby increase the overall levels of both mental and physical fitness.


It is well documented that boredom causes frustration, aggression and anti-social behaviour in humans.  Research and observation over the last thirty years has also established without doubt that boredom causes negative behaviour patterns in animals, with the more intelligent animals showing the greatest degree of aberrant behaviour.


Instinct determines that an animal must be on the move to hunt or forage, or mark its territory.  With captive animals and poor husbandry, food is automatically provided on a regular basis, usually all at once, there are no threats to its territory, its boundaries are constant, and its environment is static and bare.  These unfortunate animals are left with nothing to do for most of the time and it is precisely because a captive animal has so much time on its hands that behavioural enrichment is so vital to its well being. 


By implementing various husbandry-based and environmental enrichment techniques, the committed animal keeper can at least minimise, if not practically eliminate, negative behavioural patterns.  In some instances, once stereotypic behaviour develops, it can quite quickly become entrenched, so the earlier positive changes are made to the enclosures, the better it is for the long term health of the animal.


There are various “behavioural engineering” techniques which can be used to reduce boredom and to improve the quality of an animals’ environment and thereby increase health and quality of life.


a.            Enclosure Design.


No matter what type of creature is being kept in captivity, the enclosure should be made as large as possible and designed so as to provide some degree of naturalistic habitat.  This can be done by the use of rocks, plants, pot plants, tree branches, logs, ponds or waterfalls, differing substrates on the floor area and an area of mulch, pine bark, leaves etc., in which the animals can dig.   It is also vital that some “private” areas are provided, in which the animal can seek shelter or hide when it feels the need to so do.  These areas may be behind rocks or earth mounds, or in shrubs or logs.


The enclosure can be radically changed about periodically, with new furniture (rocks, branches, logs), new plants and perhaps the creation of or the removal of a rock pool.     New substrates can be put in  - pine bark, sand, gravel, mulch, autumn leaves or pebbles, all of which provide a different medium for the animal to investigate and experience.


b.            Social Interaction.


Social interaction is an important aspect of behaviour for most animals but particularly for those of a gregarious nature and it is always better not to house a social species by itself, if it can be avoided.     Conversely, while some solitary species can be housed together, this needs careful monitoring and should signs of stress or aggression be noticed, or if one particular animal is preventing another from eating an adequate amount, immediate corrective action should be taken.     Sometimes it is possible to house different species together, such as mammals with birds or lizards.  This provides some opportunity for interaction and for stimulation, but a great deal of care and a lot of common sense must be applied in the choice of species involved.


c.            Feeding Routine.


The feeding routine can be used very successfully as a counter to boredom and monotony.  Not only should as wide a variety of food as possible be given to any captive animal, but it should be given at various times, in varying amounts and in varying ways.  Rather than give an animal one large feed at the same time every day, give it smaller amounts of food two or three or more times a day.     The overall quantity of food should not be greater - just the feeding times, so that they are not so predictable to the animal. Hiding the food can also be used to stimulate the animal more - arboreal species can have their food put up high - perhaps hidden in trees, stuck on nails or branches or put in a hollow log.  Conversely, terrestrial animals can have theirs scattered about or hidden in grass, pine bark or other such substrate or under logs etc.     This means that the animals will have to search for their food, which will assist in creating natural behaviour patterns and activities.


All of these suggestions will involve extra time and work for an animal keeper.  However, to continue to keep animals in sterile, static enclosures is to neglect their mental and physical requirements and to show a deplorable ignorance of both acceptable standards of modern husbandry and of animal behaviour and requirements.    The information is freely available, so use it to benefit your animals and yourself.

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