When you think of animal care, a few things usually come to mind such as diet preparation, cleaning habitats and providing vet care. These are all extremely important to the health of our residents, but what about mental health? Keeping over 100 animals with their own individual needs mentally and physically stimulated can be challenging but with enrichment it’s possible!
What is enrichment and why is it so important? Enrichment is a basic husbandry principle that helps to improve the quality of life of captive animals. It’s simple, think about what the animal would normally be doing in the wild and provide them with objects, scents and other stimulus to allow their natural instincts to take over. For instance, African servals in the wild have the ability to catch birds in midair while hunting. In order to draw out this natural instinct, a ball or other object can be hung from a cable thus resembling a prey item. The serval will then stalk and jump to ‘catch’ it. So why is it important? For obvious reasons, captive animals do not have the same freedoms as wild animals and therefore do not have an avenue to use their wild instincts unless given to them by a human. In the wild, animals may hunt, forage, run, jump, hide etc. and when they are not allowed to do these things due to constrictions of fences they can present stereotypical behaviors. These stereotypical behaviors can be agitated pacing, aggression and even self-mutilation all of which are very unhealthy. By providing a stimulus or enrichment, these behaviors can be curbed by allowing the animal to use their instincts and thus creating a healthy mental state.
So let’s get to the fun part…making and giving enrichment to the cats! Staff, interns and volunteers spend hours coming up with and making new and inventive ways to enrich the cats. Themes are often used around holidays such as wrapped presents for Christmas, piñatas for Cinco de Mayo, pumpkins for Halloween and pots of gold or four leaf clovers for St. Patrick ’s Day. Other fun things are decorating the jolly balls with streamers made from construction paper or we stick on fur from other animals making them look like prey. We also add fun things to their habitats like fire hose hammocks, perches, log jungle gyms, pools and concrete caves. Variety is key and mixing it up three to four times a week is what we strive for. Some of the instincts we are looking to bring out include marking, scratching, stalking, jumping, running, foraging and exploration. While of course the enrichment is for the cats, the staff also has a pretty good time watching especially a new rescue. Often times the cats have come from situations where they are lucky just to be fed everyday let alone getting something to play with. Watching them discover what a ball is or destroying a box for the first time is priceless.
Enrichment isn’t just for big cats. You can give your pets at home enrichment, especially while you’re at work and they will be less likely to eat a shoe or scratch your couch. Do you have domestic cats? Make them a fun paper bag ‘dolly’. Roll up a piece of newspaper and place it into a paper lunch sack then sprinkle in catnip or other spices. Use masking tape to close the bag then cut strips into the remaining portion of the bag to make streamers. Throw out to your cat and watch them bat it around or shred it up. (Some clean up may be needed but it’s worth it!) Or make them a scratching post using a log or wood with rope wrapped around it. What about your dog? Get a heavy duty tube, poster holders you can get from post office, and smear peanut butter inside. They will spend hours trying to get every last lick. Another fun thing that works for both cats and dogs is hiding food or treats throughout the house or yard, they will get some much needed exercise and be fed at the same time!