It’s not often that zoo keepers take time to go places, but the first week of December Chelsea Weaver, our enrichment coordinator, and myself were privileged to attend a workshop in Galveston, Texas together at the beautiful facility Moody Gardens. What would a workshop for zoo keepers entail? It’s all in the name – TEWZAA (Training and Enrichment Workshop for Zoo and Aquarium Animals)! Our instructors consisted of three amazing women: Valerie Hare, founder of The Shape of Enrichment; Gail Laule, founder of protective contact for elephants and president of Wildlife in Need; and Margaret Whittaker, a behavioral consultant with Active Environments. For five days, we studied about behavioral management (in short, monitoring an animal’s state of being and welfare) and how to implement enrichment and training to optimize the value of life for our animals.
Enrichment simply put is using techniques to stimulate an animal to exhibit natural behaviors. Most people think of animal enrichment as toys, since it’s our most common way to occupy our pets, but there are many other ways to get an animal interested in the world around them. You can change their food, change their environment, and yes, you can also give toys as you would pets though we always have to consider safety for the animals before we make one. When we worked in groups at the workshop, each group was given a task to enrich an animal at the Moody Gardens. Chelsea’s group worked with some freshwater puffer fish and a bichir fish, building a floating wreath of plants, a PVC imitation of mangrove roots, and other imaginative items. The group I was a part of made items for a crocodile monitor including a platform, sack of warmed rice, and a hanging mobile. We all had a fantastic success rate of animals interacting with our enrichment items.
Everyone also had the opportunity to train an animal using positive reinforcement (a process of training that provides the most encouraging environment for an animal to learn a behavior) at the Moody Gardens. Chelsea was able to work with white-faced saki monkeys and I trained with harbor seals. By using the knowledge from our instructors, each of us individually were able to begin teaching a new behavior to an animal. Even though everyone enjoys watching animals do tricks, training has more benefits than just entertaining a crowd. We can successfully teach an animal to present a part of their body for inspection, injections of vaccinations or other medical treatment, and hold still while blood must be drawn. How is that possible when even humans have a difficult time allowing needles around them? By using a solid training program, you can accomplish this and many behaviors that help the animal as well as the keepers and veterinary staff remain calm, safe, and healthy.
Chelsea and I were excited to learn so many new ways to benefit our animals at the Hattiesburg Zoo, and greatly enjoyed sharing our time with other wonderful zoo keepers. TEWZAA definitely helped our understanding of animal behavior and we will continue to provide a fun, safe environment for our animals here. As a zoo keeper, it is our primary duty to understand the behavior of animals and know how to improve their conditions and mood, because it isn’t enough to have a bowl of food and a place to sleep. Animals need to have interaction and stimulation to be happy, just like us!
If you would like to learn more about enrichment, visit the Shape of Enrichment website: