Tundra, the grizzly bear, stares intently at the door to the inside portion of her enclosure, waiting to be let inside. Why is she so eager?
Tundra, the grizzly bear, stares intently at the door to the inside portion of her enclosure, waiting to be let inside. Why is she so eager? Because she knows that when she comes out, her enclosure will be dotted with food, hidden for her to find, in every high, low, and hard to reach place. This is her foraging enrichment, just a small part of the enrichment and behavioral training program taking place at the Denver Zoo.
Enrichment and behavioral husbandry, meaning "animal care", is a way to keep zoo animals' minds and bodies active, help reinforce their natural behaviors and teach new behaviors. Emily Insalaco, the Curator of Behavioral Husbandry at the Denver Zoo, whose job was created after she was called in for three years to start a behavior program for the zoo, explained all of the benefits of this program.
In the past, keepers would have difficulty luring animals out of their exhibits for vaccinations and checkups. Animals sometimes also had to take medicine so they would be asleep during the examination, sometimes skewing results. Now none of this is necessary thanks to Insalaco, and her team of keepers. They train animals to voluntarily participate in examinations using a method called sound marker training. Soon, the animals will have learned several behaviors and can assist in checkups like mouth inspection. One hidden health benefit of this is that since the animals don't have the anxiety of being forced into examination, they are less stressed and healthier!
Having animals that are cooperative during checkups is a great asset to the zoo. But Insalaco says the training has an even bigger benefit, explaining that "When you work with the animals everyday, you know them better, so you know if something is different." Usually, zoo animals don't cry in pain when they are sick or hurt, but instead act in an abnormal way. The keepers who train the animals everyday know their personalities and recognize when something is "off". Then, a vet can intervene.
These animal-keeper relationships are the most valuable tool the zoo has for keeping Tundra and her fellow animals healthy and engaged for many years to come.