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What’s Enrichment?

The word “enrichment” is said dozens of times a day around the Zoo. As in, “we have Suki’s enrichment ready” or “Indah really seemed to enjoy her enrichment today” or “we need to create the otters’ enrichment this afternoon.” Enrichments are a vital part of providing high-quality animal care at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium but what exactly is it?

“Enrichments are things like food, smells or toys that provide mental and physical stimulation to the animals,” said Sara, staff biologist at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and chair of the Enrichment Committee at Point Defiance Zoo. “Enrichments are designed to encourage their natural behaviors.”

In 2021, Zoo staff ordered nearly 10,000 enrichment items for the animals. Some favorites?

elephant stomps watermelon
Suki stomps a watermelon.

“Suki the elephant loves her watermelon!” said Sara. “The shape and novel food offers her the opportunity to interact with and taste something new.”

Suki examines the watermelon with her trunk, smashes it with her feet, and then eats it.

Suki also enjoyed fruit-flavored syrup, yellow mustard, and Willow branches (58 times to be exact).

“Our horticulture team grows a wide variety of plants, like willow or bamboo, that we share with the animals,” said Sara.

Animals in Kids’ Zone enjoyed extracts like peppermint, vanilla, orange, maple, coconut and lime.

“We scatter these scents in different places in their habitats, encouraging them to explore their surroundings,” said Sara. “It gives them something new to think about and decide if they want to interact with or avoid — a choice all animals and humans have to make every day.”

Tilli the aardvark and Gonzo and Terra the tamanduas particularly fancied maple syrup. The animals in Rocky Shores, like the otters and sea lions, enjoyed 227 play toys. And the animals in Wild Wonders favored working for their food.sea otter in play toy

“We love to give animals their daily diets in new and challenging ways, like stuffing a ball full of their regular food items,” said Sara. “Most animals in the wild spend time looking for food in their environment, so this encourages those natural behaviors.”

Tamandua licks yogurt out of a tube-
Tamandua licks yogurt out of a tube- a favorite treat.

Every enrichment item – all 9,866 of them – is vetted by a team of at least four people (keeper, veterinarian, senior staff biologist and curator) for safety and appropriateness to each individual animal. The team assesses the safety and quality of the enrichment as well as the natural behavior the item is designed to encourage.

Try It at Home

Try giving your pet at home an enrichment. There are many puzzle feeder toys available for purchase, especially for dogs. But even giving a daily food diet in new ways can be enriching, like sprinkling your dog’s kibble into an ice tray to give them mental and physical stimulation as they eat. For more ideas on how you can use enrichment at home, click here.