Science at home: Enriching animals

June 5 was World Environment Day: a day that’s been celebrated since 1974 in an effort to preserve the environment and learn more about it. Just as nature provides us with the things we need to survive, it’s our duty to observe and protect nature wherever we can.

Modern zoos and wildlife parks play an important role in raising awareness about the environment and species from around the world. While zoos once existed as curiosities, or for even crueller purposes, many are now involved in national or global breeding or conservation programs.  For example Alice Springs Desert Park is involved in breeding and releasing endangered Australian animals including bilbies, wallabies, lizards and birds.

It’s crucial to look after the mental and physical health of animals in zoos.  One of the ways this is done is via enrichment activities.  Just like you probably needed entertainment and mental stimulation while stuck indoors during COVID restrictions, captive animals also need stimulation. Enrichment stimulates the animals’ senses and encourages their natural behaviour – some methods I’ve used are:

  • Introducing plant stems to a stick-nest rat enclosure so the rats can use it to make their nest (if you’ve never seen this, check out the size of the nest in this clip – the rats carry the branches around using their tails!)
  • Moving items around in an animal’s enclosure, or introducing new things like tree branches so they can investigate their environment differently
  • Moving animals to a different enclosure to explore
  • Hiding food treats so the animals forage for food
  • Spraying different scents on objects in the enclosure to stimulate the sense of smell

It’s really interesting and important to observe how the animals react to enrichment activities so you can decide if you should repeat it or try something else next time.

Animals are also stimulated by watching visitors to the zoo while the visitors observe the animals. In the absence of crowds visiting zoos and wildlife parks during recent lockdowns, many zookeepers took to different forms of enrichment.  Some took the animals out of their enclosures to explore the public spaces like in this clip.

Lockdowns have affected wildlife outside zoos and parks too. With few people out and about, wildlife has been spotted coming into cities around the world. Kangaroos were even seen hopping along King William Street in Adelaide.

If you want to get involved in monitoring wildlife, there are lots of interesting citizen science projects in your area.  You could help understand how changes in weather are affecting seasonal behaviour of plants and animals with ClimateWatch, or monitor koalas using KoalaTracker Crowdsourced Koala Map.  Or you might be interested in tracking insects with the Butterflies Australia app. Find a local project to get involved in at the SciStarter Project Finder.

If you’re really keen and want a career in the environment, see what some of our current environment students get up to at university in this recent webinar, learn how to draw what you see in the field in our observational drawing webinar, and check out our degrees in Biodiversity and Conservation and Environment.

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