Visual Enrichment at Zoo Atlanta
Nichole Bouwens, Senior Keeper
Atlanta, GeorgiaWhen developing an enrichment strategy for the animals in your care, do you ever consider the value of visual enrichment? Visual enrichment can be a very easy, low cost, and highly effective way to enrich virtually any species. At Zoo Atlanta we have used countless items to visually stimulate our animals. A few of these items are listed in Figure A. In general, the animals do not have physical contact with these items for various safety reasons.
Most of the items listed in Figure A have been used as enrichment for our primate collection and many have enriched some of our birds and carnivores. We’ve found that visual enrichment works particularly well for our Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), an inquisitive, high energy group. Shining a laser pointer on the floor will usually lead the group into a game of chase. Running after the small speck of light as it goes up and down, over and under obstacles never seems to get old for this group. The laser pointer is not only a great item for getting the otters active and exercising, it also provides unending entertainment for the otter keepers!
We also change things up a bit in the otter holding area whenever possible by hanging up large paper toucan and flamingo cutouts, flower garlands, stickers, and Christmas lights. These items do not usually increase activity, but they give the otters some new and different things to look at and are rotated out frequently.
Colorful chalk drawings can be fun for both keepers and the animals. One of our cat keepers drew all over the floors and walls in the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) dens. When the tigers came in, they explored each drawing and even hissed at some of the sketches.
Even keepers themselves can be enriching. Over the years, I have heard stories from keepers who have dressed up in masks, big silly hats or costume jewelry, and some even dance to music for the animals.
One of the most successful items that we have used is the Liquid Light Projector. Although this particular item is no longer sold, there are many others like it still on the market. The Liquid Light Projector is especially interesting because it projects moving colored lights onto walls and it has a great range. When shown to the gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) through their mesh enclosure, they tried to pick the colors off with their nails and they licked the walls where the lights were projected. Some of the gorillas just sat and watched the lights, while others tried to groom the lights off of their cage mates. When the projected lights were shown in the room with some of our show birds, the Pied crow (Corvus albus) vocalized with soft “oohs” and “ahhs,” while the Abyssinian Ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) perched and watched intently as the lights moved around. The lions (Panthera leo) reacted to the lights by rubbing on the wall where the lights were projected and they pawed at the wall. One of our lion cubs sat in the center of the light beam and stared at his shadow which was surrounded by moving colored lights.
Whenever possible our keepers provide the animals with the ability to remove themselves from the location of the visual enrichment in case these items cause the animal stress. Timers are used with the lights and projectors so that the animals are not exposed to lights and movement for an extended period of time and because some of these items may overheat if left on for too long.
Visual enrichment can be stimulating for the animals, is not time consuming, and is usually mess-free. Visual enrichment is great for animals on strict diets because it can be engaging without involving food. The next time you walk into a holding area or animal exhibit, look around and see if there is anything you can do to change things up a bit. It doesn’t have to be anything big or scary, especially at first. Some animals need to be exposed to something new gradually, but with patience and creativity you can really spice things up with a picture, mirror, poster, stickers, or even colorful lights.