by: Megan Gregory, Public Relations Aide at Newport Aquarium
Have you ever been to a zoo or aquarium and noticed something odd in the exhibit? Something that looks like it belongs to a child, like a small slide or Easter Eggs? These weren’t thrown in by accident, these are enrichment tools! These items are placed in the exhibit to stimulate animals both physically and psychologically.
Newport Aquarium is fortunate to have several animals who participate in enrichment, most notably our Asian Small Clawed Otters: Neda and Pork Chop.
What is Enrichment?
Enrichment is an important factor when it comes to an animal’s well-being while under professional care. It’s modifying an animal’s environment to stimulate behaviors like those in the wild.
The Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) requires all accredited facilities to participate in enrichment programs. There are several types that are used on the otters to enhance their well-being: scent, food, physical, auditory, and training are just a few.
Why is Enrichment Important?
When an animal is in the wild, they spend a significant amount of time looking for food, building shelters, mating, and defending their space. While under professional care, they don’t need to worry about any of these things – which is where enrichment comes in. Adding this into their routine is a controlled and safe way to help the animals maintain their ability to adapt to change and stress in their environment.
What Items are used for Enrichment?
There are hundreds of options for enrichment tools. It’s something different for them to explore every day. Some days, there will be hay spread out; other days will be giant Legos. With Easter coming up, biologists have been putting Easter eggs with food or rocks inside of them to encourage the otters to pry them open. They’ll also have an Easter basket with rocks and eggs at the bottom, this gets them to forage a trait they’ll do in the wild. Scents like nutmeg, cinnamon, or other strong smells are spread throughout the exhibit, which keeps them intrigued. You’ll also notice that every once in a while, live fish are put into the pond inside the exhibit to encourage them to hunt.
Each item has to be approved through Newport Aquarium’s Enrichment Committee before they can be used. It has to have a specific reason: What will this accomplish? Is it for brain stimulation? Is it to encourage exercise? It then has to be inspected for safety, making sure there is absolutely no way this can hurt the animal. After it’s been completely approved by the committee, it goes into a rotation. If the same tools are put on exhibit every day, it defeats the purpose of enrichment and the otters could get bored.
What Happens if the Otters Don’t Cooperate?
At Newport Aquarium, we are proud to participate in Animal Choice Programming. This means, for example, if Neda decides she wouldn’t like to participate in training or enrichment, she doesn’t have to. It’s also important to remember: even though we may not be able to notice it, enrichment is happening every day.
You can see our Asian Small Clawed Otters in Canyon Falls. We have Otter Talks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. where you’ll get to see Pork Chop, who loves to juggle, and Neda, who loves to play with Legos and shred things apart. Plan your next visit, take a look at the Newport Aquarium Events Calendar here.