One of the most important jobs our volunteers complete at the centres where we work is enrichment for the animals that are resident. Enrichment can take a long time to craft, and in some cases can be hard work to install – for centres whose staff and resources are already stretched, a good volunteering project can fill gaps and provide improvements to the welfare of resident animals every day. Enrichment is not something that will help the massive problems facing species and habitat survival today, but for the individual animals that end up at rescue and rehab centres, it can make the world of difference and is an area where volunteers can have a very real and meaningful impact on the lives of those animals.
It is common for captive animals to develop repetitive, compulsive behaviours called stereotypies. These behaviours are the animals’ way of creating a coping strategy to deal with the stressful situation in which they find themselves. Humans also create a whole range of behaviours to help deal with stress, and many of these could be considered ‘stereotypies’; nail-biting, pacing, smoking, foot-tapping, or the more extreme example of obsessive compulsive behavioural routines. Though these behaviours in animals originate as a response to stress, often in long term captive animals the behaviour seems to be much more similar to OCD in humans – over the months and years, it simply becomes ingrained, routinized behaviour within the animals’ repertoire and it can prove immensely challenging, and sometimes impossible, to break this compulsion for them.
When viewing captive animals, people often only look at the size and layout of an enclosure, and judge its quality for the animals housed there on these factors alone. Remember that historically, enclosures were designed with exactly this in mind, so were cleverly created to give the tourist the best impression of what they were looking at – cement rocks painted white are not going to fool a polar bear into thinking they are blocks of ice, but it makes the humans viewing the exhibit feel better. Also, we have worked with sun bears that lived in a large, naturalistic, forested enclosure on Borneo – any tourist would think it was a wonderful space for bears. The bears within didn’t particularly agree, and spent 90% of their waking time pacing backwards and forwards. We achieved a significant change in this behaviour through creative and consistent enrichment that encouraged the bears to engage with the space and use their natural behaviours. Simply giving more space does not always make any difference.
What is done inside the enclosures though can make a world of difference to the animals that live within them. There is really no limit to enrichment either; only the imagination of the person creating it. This is another benefit to a volunteering project in situ at a centre – with different people working with us month on month, there is huge potential for fresh ideas for the animals’ entertainment.
Novelty and fresh ideas are important, as boredom can be a significant stressor to an animal. Once the pressure of survival is lifted and they no longer face the daily strife of finding the next meal, finding safety to rest and avoiding predation, life becomes so easy that additional entertainment needs to be provided. Take a look at the modern human as an excellent example; we know exactly where our next meal is coming from and at what time, we have safety and security to reside within and if illness strikes we can usually treat it. Our daily survival is not in question – and look at the vast myriad of enrichment activities we have created to keep the associated boredom at bay; everything from cross-stitch to bass-jumping, from gymnastics to volunteering holidays. Of course other animal species also need stimulation.
Providing enrichment is a very rewarding aspect of working at a centre with captive animals, often even more so for those of us in rescue centres. We receive animals that have commonly seen the very worst side of humans, so it is only right that we show them a better side.