Sunday, May 13, 2012

Primate Enrichment

Welcome back! It is my pleasure to use this blog to discuss a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, and one that is very relevant for captive animals, but especially primates: enrichment!!! So, what exactly is enrichment? Enrichment is process of providing a new and challenging environment to stimulate an animal across social, physical, and psychological perspectives. Consider this! Animals in the wild are constantly foraging for food, selecting a mate, and defending a territory. But many of these activities disappear when in captivity. How would you feel being confined to your apartment for years (especially in New York)? What if you did not have any electricity to support things you typically do (yes... no iPads)? We can quickly imagine that enrichment is a critical part of managing the care of primates. In this blog, let's explore the importance of primate enrichment, the five types of primate enrichment, the enrichment planning process, some typical tactics and techniques, and some closing remarks.

  Why Enrichment Is So Important?
Enrichment is for everyone, and it's great for everyone to gain an understanding of the importance of primate enrichment. It's not "great to have" or optional based on some slush fund of the zoo or institution; enrichment delivers significant benefits to the primate population while reducing common risks associated with captivity. Enrichment is not "an extra"; it is mandated by government officials to protect the welfare of captive species. So, why the focus and attention? What is the added benefit of enrichment for primates? Enrichment impacts and improves a primate's social, physical, and psychological wellness. Enriching activities can stimulate a primate's mind and body to break the mundane routine. Ever see a lemur with a small toy? Or an gorilla with a feeder basket? Or an orangutan climbing on a hammock? Enrichment provides an opportunity to do something different physically and mentally, and often is a crowd-pleaser for us! 

Additionally, some of these interactions involve multiple primates at the same time, so unique social experiences are supported. Finally, adding excitement, suspense, and the intrigue of new and different stimuli promote a better state of emotional well being. In total, these activities can offer outlets for more "natural" behaviors (that we might see in the wild), like foraging or vocalizing. Also, robust, committed enrichment programs can improve reproduction rates and reduce depression and other health conditions. Primates may also explore new or refurbished areas in the exhibit, especially after significant exhibit changes. Enrichment may help re-integrate a member of the group that was separated for a medical procedure. While the list of benefits is many, so too are the risks of withholding enrichment. Researchers have documented significant behavioral and psychological problems, including head flicking, walking in circles, hair plucking, apathy, depression, self-injury and mutilation. These conditions are thought to be a result of prolonged, elevated stress levels, a by-product of a constant, non-stimulating environment. So, if we have established that primate enrichment is essential, what are the five types we can organize for our closest ancestors? 

  Fun Holiday Enrichment Video
The Types of Enrichment 
Primate enrichment (although these groupings have broader relevance) can be dissected into at least five categories. Almost every institution has a different number of categories or various names for them, but we will discuss five categories for the sake of simplicity. They can be defined as social (1), environmental (2), sensory (3), diet (4), and manipulata (5). 

   1. Social enrichment involves special interactions with other animals, whether they are other primates of the same species, members of a different species of primates, other non-primates (such cats, ducks, pigs, etc), and, last but not least, humans. Sometimes these human-based social interactions can be overlooked, but they are equally important to build productive and meaningful relationships. 

   2. Environmental enrichment is typically dealing the physical surroundings, including elevated structures (for perching and climbing), nests, dens, caves, light and humidity, and even the substrate (or habitat floor). A good deal of research energy goes into designing the optimal environment intended to match the primate's natural environment. For example, tree-dwelling tropical species need a habitat with branches, vines, and >75% humidity. Some habitats feature full climate control, lighting that changes on a 12-hour cycle, waterfalls, and even tropical sounds. Although they can be exciting, complete habitat make-overs can be extensive and costly.

   3. The next category is sensory, which features the fun stuff: smells, sounds, sights, touches, but not tastes (see: diet). Sensory is well documented but difficult to implement if one considers working with primate scents, crowd noise, and special colors and textures. Tastes are separated into a distinct category because the options there are vast. 

   4. Diet can include the food substance itself such as ice cubes or seasonal fruit as well as food delivery in a puzzle or hidden to encourage foraging. Diet enrichment is probably considered the easiest to follow and compliance is typically high. If it weren't for this type of enrichment, primates would eat the same food everyday! 

   5. Finally, the "touches" described in the sensory category flow into manipulata, which is a category that is not obvious like the others. Manipulata is considered any durable object or item that can be "manipulated" by the primate.

This category encompasses small toys, games, and various objects that may or may not specifically stimulate the intellect. It is important to remember that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, a piece of mango trapped in a tube can span manipulata and diet enrichment. Those responsible for animal care and wellness must consider the sum total of enrichment and the mix of tactics to ensure it is aligned with the needs and behaviors of that primate species. To better understand this process, let's examine how to design an enrichment plan. 

 Designing an Enrichment Plan
Designing an enrichment plan is no exercise, but requires thorough knowledge of the primate health, in addition to understanding the behavior of the species and specific group itself. One must consider the current habitat (outdoor and indoor), state and federal restrictions and regulations, special considerations (such as a new primate introduction), and the available budget, etc. Typically, an enrichment expert or zoo keeper will collaborate initially by setting some goals for the proposed enrichment plan. From these goals, they develop criteria to achieve the goals, followed by some associated brainstorming on strategies, tactics, techniques that can be considered. For example, if a goal is increasing the diet enrichment blend to 5-10% of consumed food, what are the tactics and implementation to achieve this? After several iterations, and sometimes consulting other industry experts and published research, the team finalizes the plan and begins to implement it. The plan is rolled out with some regular observations, record-keeping, trouble-shooting, and any real-time adjustments. Regular milestones in the plan trigger some analysis of the collected data to inform if the plan is actually working. There are usually discussions to revise the current plan or continue as outlined until particular goals are realized. Disney Animal Programs has a useful online resource to better understand this planning process. But the enrichment plan is only as good as the tools, techniques, and tactics employed. 

   Typical Enrichment Techniques and Tactics
Indeed, one's plan for a college homework assignment is useless without the books, laptop, printer, and internet access. Enrichment tools, techniques, and tactics must be carefully chosen and appropriate for the species and habitat design. This is where things really get creative, as keepers typically need to maximize their budgets to deliver on the plan. I have provided several examples below of actual tools and techniques, including some providers/suppliers so everyone can get a very real sense of the materials involved.  


Toy (manipulata)
Toys provide a very interactive experience for primates and are practical because they can range in size and complexity

Food (diet)
Diet enrichment is widely practiced, whether chopping up some seasonal fruit or purchasing a diet package

Mirror (social)
Mirrors are a very feasible way of providing some basic social stimuli.  

Habitat Improvements (environmental)
This is an example of an improved habitat. 

In conclusion, there is a very clear benefit from putting significant effort (and investment) into primate enrichment. Institutions can provide healthier, richer lives for their captive animals and continue to give the public meaningful experiences. My hope is that a bigger emphasis is placed on enrichment, with more funding available and more innovative ideas brought to the forefront. Perhaps someday soon primates in captivity will be given every opportunity to live stress-reduced and reproductively active lives. 

Thanks for reading!

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