Enriching our visitors while enriching our animals: Using animal enrichment as a teaching tool
Jill Garnett, Potter Park Zoo, Lansing, Michigan
Enrichment provides zoo animals with novel items in their environments that encourage increased mental and physical activities and promote natural behaviors. These activities help captive animals maintain their ability to adapt to change and stress in their environment and contribute to their physical and psychological health.
Enrichment is a trend in zoos that is here to stay. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) and the zoo world it represents are committed to its growth. It is no longer enough for zoos to have natural-looking exhibits if they do not offer opportunities for the animals to exhibit natural behaviors.
Enrichment is good for our animals. It is also good for our visitors, providing them with opportunities to see zoo animals involved in active, species-typical behaviors that give glimpses into the lives of animals in the wild.
Zoo docents at the Potter Park Zoo have taken leading roles in the growing prominence of both the zoo’s enrichment program and its use as an educational tool, melding their involvement in the enrichment program with their natural inclination to educate. They are using the incredible learning opportunities provided by animal enrichment as teaching tools to educate the visiting public.
Both the enrichment program and its educational component have taken root at the Potter Park Zoo and continue to evolve. Below is the story of this taking root and evolution. It is a story in two parts, each looking rather different. The first part, the development of the enrichment program itself, is well along and is presented as background. The second part, the development of the educational component, is the focus of our AZAD Education Grant project. It is in the early stages and is structured around the questions driving it. With time, those questions will be more fully answered and the story will unfold. In the meantime, the questions help keep docents focused on the task ahead and their progress in accomplishing it.
Developing The Enrichment Program
Potter Park Zoo began its Enrichment Program in August of 2004.
Previously, keepers implemented enrichments sporadically, and interns conducted short-term projects. This time, zoo staff wanted a more comprehensive and long-lasting program, first, to increase the well-being of the animals and, second, to enhance the zoo experience of visitors and increase opportunities to educate them. Docents have embraced
each of these goals, playing major roles in the development and growth of each.
Zoo leadership formed an Enrichment Committee to direct this new program. The committee consisted of the zoo veterinarian, two zookeepers, the education curator, two docents, and college interns. The objectives of the committee were to facilitate the development of the program, create monthly enrichment schedules, develop and approve new enrichment designs and ideas, evaluate the program and make adjustments as needed, ensure the continuation and growth of the program, increase the number of species getting enrichment as the program grows, and coordinate docent interpretation and/or signage with enrichment activities so that the public can be informed.
Potter Park Zoo is a small zoo with a small zookeeper staff. Given serious time constraints, the zookeepers were not prepared to lead this effort. Limited personnel and resources present many opportunities for our docents, in this case, taking on the role of providing central support for enrichments to this small staff. The first phase in the development of the enrichment program called for docents to lead enrichments, perform supporting tasks, and work closely with the keepers in implementing enrichments. Docents cannot adequately provide for the enrichment needs of the animals on their own, but they can be catalysts and provide support. Eventually the keepers must be the primary providers of enrichment for adequate coverage.
An exiting intern who supported this new direction in enrichment stayed on to get the docents started. The two docents from the Enrichment Committee attended committee meetings, organized a storage area, accumulated supplies, and followed the intern around on enrichments, learning the ropes. It took time, lots of time, for our docents to learn the many details that would help them do the job, such as where to find the dead fish for the otters, how to make primate hummus, when the keepers took lunch and breaks, and most importantly, how to be flexible and improvise when plans changed at the last minute. This learning was accomplished through on-the- job training, many conversations with patient keepers, and lots of support from each other. When the intern got married and left town, the docents knew they were on their own.
Enrichment Committee meetings were soon forsaken for impromptu consultations in the park. (In a small zoo it is possible to see committee members and ask questions on the fly.) Before long, the docents had earned the trust to lead the effort, taking over many of the tasks of the committee and consulting when needed. They recruited the Enrichment Team, a group of docents and college students who would help with the docent-led enrichments.
One of the docents from the Enrichment Committee serves as the enrichment coordinator and directs the Enrichment Team’s activities. The coordinator works with other Team members to generate ideas for enrichments and to plan and schedule them. These plans are shared with the keepers and approved by the veterinarian. Team members recruit helpers, obtain materials and prepare them, deliver materials to the keepers, observe and record the animals’ reactions, and interpret these reactions to visitors. The Team uses the observational data as it tweaks current enrichments and develops future enrichments. It also revises other aspects of the program based on experience and input from others.
Most Enrichment Team members receive their training by shadowing experienced Team members, who help new team members learn where things are found around the zoo, how to handle changes in plans, and what behavior is expected in dealing with keepers, animals, and visitors. Team members sign up for enrichment times that suit their schedule and usually work one-and-a-half to two hours at a time to cover scheduled enrichments. They may work alone or as a group. Some docents and students work alone on special projects, focusing on particular species and working directly with the keeper involved.
Good relationships with the keepers are critical to success. The Enrichment Team needs to be trusted, considerate of the keepers’ time and space, and flexible, deferring to the keepers’ needs. These relationships are important to docent-led enrichments but also as the Team seeks to serve as a vehicle for encouraging and facilitating the keepers’ increased enrichment activities. The Team continues to learn and make changes to improve the program so that more enrichments can be provided.
Enrichment efforts at the Potter Park Zoo have grown in many directions since the Enrichment Team was created three years ago. This would not have happened without the docents. The program is still in the first phase, the docent-led enrichment phase. The Team has remained small, with two docents doing most of the work with help from several occasional helpers, but it has succeeded in creating the basis for a sustained enrichment program. Since the program began, the Team, working in conjunction with the keepers, has spearheaded over 1200 enrichments for animals throughout the zoo.
While this has been a great accomplishment for the Team, the Team knows that the animals need more. The keepers are the key to the real success of the enrichment program. The primate and big cat keepers are now providing regular enrichments on their own. The Team will continue to encourage and facilitate others to follow suit. Over time it is expected that the Team’s role will continue to evolve to better serve the needs of the keepers in implementing the goals of the enrichment program.
Developing The Educational Component Of The Enrichment Program
From the story of the enrichment program presented above, it is clear that the docents have played a major role in many facets of the development of the enrichment program. From their front-row seat at enrichments, docents saw that enrichments were good for the animals but could also be fabulous teaching tools for visitors, providing opportunities to observe actual animal behavior that illustrated the abilities and adaptations of the animals in the zoo.
The docents began to generate ways (1) to educate visitors about this new aspect of the zoo and (2) to use the learning opportunities inherent in enrichment to educate visitors about the animals and (3) to illustrate the use of animal observation and the scientific method to further knowledge.
Below are the six questions and answers that structure the docents’ work in developing the educational component of the enrichment program. The bulk of the docents’ activities fall in the areas of developing the audience and delivering the message. Many seeds have been planted, but the work is not finished. As the docents continue their work, this component will evolve from questions and answers and activities to a story of its own.
What is it that we want to accomplish?
We want to use enrichments and the animal behavior elicited as teaching tools to educate visitors about –
enrichment and its benefits to the animals; the animals and their abilities and behaviors, with parallels in the wild; and
the scientific method and animal observation as tools for learning about animals.
Also, we wanted to train docents to do the above.
What is the message that we want to send through our educational program?
What is enrichment and what is its purpose?
Why is enrichment important to the animals?
Enrichment is good for our animals. By providing novel experiences, encouraging physical and mental activity, and promoting natural behaviors, those implementing enrichments provide more choice and control to captive animals,
enhance their physical and psychological health, and help captive animals maintain their ability to adapt to change and stress in their environment.
Why is enrichment important to visitors?
Enrichment activities enrich the visitors’ experience by providing a more interesting and informative experience. With opportunities to witness behaviors that are not always seen, enrichment activities provide learning opportunities in a variety of areas, from the importance of enrichment and the use of the scientific method to species-specific behaviors
and ecological concepts such as food chains, predator-prey, and the use of senses.
Increasing the public’s appreciation of the zoo’s commitment to animal welfare, and helping instill stewardship by allowing some student groups to participate actively in preparing enrichments, which may lead to their giving back in other ways.
Why is enrichment important to docents?
Enrichment activities enrich the docents’ experience by broadening their experience through their involvement in enrichment and increasing their knowledge through observing or learning about animals’ reactions to various enrichments.
Who are the target audiences for our message?
The primary targets for the educational message about enrichment are typical of those for other educational
- Zoo visitors, including school groups, scout groups, and overnight groups (The Big Zoo Lesson classes, which spend a week with the zoo as their classroom, are a special audience for enrichment. They attend the zoo’s regular enrichments and also prepare and observe their own enrichment. Animal observation and scientific method are emphasized.)
- The media
How will we develop our audience and deliver our message?
Docents are working in a variety of ways to reach various audiences in order to deliver the enrichment message: Getting zoo visitors to be aware of enrichment at the zoo and to come to see the enrichments via –
- Articles on enrichment for the quarterly member newsletter
- Information on the website
- Scheduling information for the admission staff
- Scheduling and informational signage within the zoo
- Information and photographs on the zoo kiosk
- Displays at various zoo events
- Invitations to the media and exposure in the media
- Construction and implementation of enrichments by special groups (e.g., the Big Zoo Lesson, the weeklong school-year class experiences; scout groups; sleepover groups)
- Interpreting enrichments to zoo visitors
- Themed enrichment chat frameworks have been developed to provide focus for docent discussions with visitors during enrichments. The chats are intended to explain the enrichments and to provide context and linkage to natural behaviors. The specific theme used depends on the enrichment being conducted.
Among the topics are
- Novel sensory experiences
- Predatory behaviors
- Object manipulation
- Visitor predictions (using the scientific method and observation to learn about the animals, especially with student groups)
Informing our docents about enrichments via
- Docent training materials: enrichment chat frameworks (described above) and animal enrichment, profiles (background information that summarizes typical responses of various zoo animals to previous enrichments)
- Updates in docent newsletter
- Announcements at docent meetings
- General information and monthly calendar on the docent website
- Notebook of enrichment logs
- Video presentation of some of our enrichments
- Session for new docents during their training
- How will we assess our enrichment program’s educational component?
- The educational component is still very much under development. At this stage, a variety of methods are being used to develop the audience and deliver the message. We try to learn and refine our techniques along the way.
- With more time, surveys will be given to determine effectiveness.
What will our budget be?
As usual, the budget is very limited. The docent-led enrichments and the accompanying educational work have thus far operated on a shoestring and out of docents’ pockets. A variety of resources are available to us, although not always monetary. Our early efforts have been primarily fueled by the creative work of docents, home computers, and in-house printing costs covered by the Zoological Society. We have begun with paper signs, laminated photos, and homemade videos. Once we determine what is most effective, we plan to invest in improved signage and additional interpretive materials.
The docents’ work makes it possible for visitors to see active animals in a zoo setting reacting to novelty and engaged in purposeful activity as they might in the wild. There are spider monkeys feeding out of bed sheets, tigers rubbing in perfume, and otters getting apples out from under a milk crate. These are not items an animal would normally come across in the wild. What is important, however, is that they may elicit behaviors experienced in the wild. They also offer opportunities to excite visitors and help them learn more about the animals, their abilities, and adaptations. Enrichment becomes an awesome teaching tool.
This is the story of the Potter Park Zoo’s docent-led enrichment program and its educational component. It is a story in two parts: (1) the enrichment program, which has been established and grows, and (2) the educational component, which is just beginning. Clearly, docents are a powerful force, capable of developing and sustaining programs. Their work is not finished. The opportunities continue.
Thank you to AZAD for the educational grant to move this project along.