Enrichment as Basis of Design?

For those of you new to zoo design, enrichment (or behavioral enrichment or environmental enrichment) is a means for zoos to invigorate the lives of the captive animals by providing activities or environmental changes that encourage the natural instincts and behaviors of the animals.  As designers, we need to recognize the need for enrichment in the daily lives of animals for several reasons:  active animals make exhibits more engaging; active animals equal happy animals in the eyes of our guests. 

Sunbear with Halloween Enrichment

Moreover, as designers, we need to make the lives of keepers as easy as possible.  A cramped or impossible to work in space, makes their daily routines more difficult which means less time to work with the animals and provide for their mental stimulation needs. 

So, providing spaces that recognize the need for enrichment is one step…make spaces flexible and workable for the keepers.  Make lots of storage for things like buckets, boomer balls and other toys, cardboard, and anything else a keeper might want to incorporate into the animal’s life.  I’ve found talking to keepers about their routines and enrichment / training activities both encourages exchange of ideas and information (that, frankly, most of us designers are quite ignorant of), and also works to break the barrier of mistrust between the two groups (which is another topic entirely). 

By NevaBut what about creating an entire exhibit based not on story, or visitor experience, or site constraints, but on animal enrichment?  I’ve only heard of one exhibit that did this…the lemurs at San Francisco Zoo.  (If there are others out there, please let me know.)  I’ve never actually seen this exhibit, but heard a presentation about a couple of years ago at the AZA National Conference.  Not only did they build the exhibit based solely on the animals’ needs and need for enrichment, but they worked in the visitors’ need for connection by allowing the visitors to control some of the enrichment activities.  I’m curious to see if this worked. 

Another possible example, which I am unsure if was based primarily on the idea of enrichment, or if the idea came afterward, is the Islands exhibit at Louisville Zoo.  This exhibit links several smaller exhibits so that the animals, both predator and prey, can be rotated between the exhibits as often as possible.  This allows the critters to get residual scents of each other, theoretically enriching their lives.  I know in certain instances this leads to more stress than good, but I also know this exhibit is still functioning in this manner. 

Can we design a fully successful exhibit, from the visitor’s point of view, from the animal’s point of view, from the keeper’s point of view, starting from the enrichment goals?  I think yes.  We can always find a way to wrap the visitors into a story.  And, well, unfortunately, but accurately, the keepers’ behind the scenes spaces can always be worked out after the rest of the front of house stuff is designed.  I’d like to see everyone on a design team on board for this sort of thinking and see where it leads us. 

In the meantime, encouraging zoo clients to, at the very least, include a statement of enrichment design and hopefully an enrichment goal outline in every master plan is a place to start.  Even if the concept phase of the exhibit design doesn’t focus on enrichment, make sure that at some point in this phase, its brought up.  At the very least, ask what possible enrichment activities could be done with the species in question, and think about how the keepers can incorporate those activities even in the simplest manner throughout.  Make their lives easier, if you can, by providing attachments for toys, easy methods for hiding snacks and scents, and giving them access to the highest points in the exhibits. 

If you get lucky, you’ll get a client that wants to really explore how to connect design and enrichment.  For the most part now, though, keepers will continue to fight their way through the daily challenge of enriching their animals’ lives without the support of an exhibit truly designed for maximum enrichment opportunities.

And if you’d like to really impress your keepers, check out some of the enrichment websites listed in the Blogroll and come prepared to meetings with ideas!

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