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Animal Enrichment & Training

Animal enrichment covers a variety of items and experiences that encourage animals to exhibit their natural behaviors. Animal training often goes hand-in-hand with enrichment and tends to be based off a reward system.




What is Animal Enrichment?

Animal enrichment can be anything that encourages animals to exhibit their natural behaviors in order to enhance overall well-being. Depending on the species, some of these natural behaviors include foraging, problem solving, hunting and playing!

Why is it important?

Unlike animals in the wild, animals at the Akron Zoo do not need to find their own food or protect themselves from predators. Instead, they have awesome dedicated staff that provides them a balanced diet and regular medical care! But their mental and physical abilities still need to be challenged. That is where enrichment comes in. Animal care staff is constantly thinking of new ways to engage the animals and encourage them to exhibit species-appropriate behaviors.

How can you help?

As you may expect, enrichment items don’t last very long! Our animals are very strong and very adept at figuring out (and often destroying) their favorite items. For a list of items we are always looking for, please visit the following websites for our wish lists:

We also utilize many items that are either commonly recycled or that can be purchased at local craft or grocery stores.

Here is a list of current items we are in need of. Please contact Stephanie Miner at (330) 375-2550 ext 7280 or at s.miner@akronzoo.org before bringing any of these items for donation.

  • Brown paper bags (lunch or grocery sized)
  • Pillow cases and towels (no snags, rips, or holes)
  • PVC (schedule 40 or 80) – pipes, caps, elbows, etc of any size
  • Cleaned out, empty plastic kitty litter buckets
  • Kiddie pools/wading pools – earth-tone colors a plus!
  • Little Tykes plastic items (waffle blocks, toys, etc)
  • Washable tempera paint
  • Paint brushes (all sizes)
  • Dixie cups
  • Construction paper
  • Packaging paper/butcher paper

How is enrichment provided at the Akron Zoo?

During your visit to the Akron Zoo, you may be able to spot a few items in exhibits that can easily be identified as “enrichment.” Think of the hard plastic toys the grizzly bears love to play with in their pool, or the barrel that is a favorite of our male lion! But there are many other enriching opportunities in each exhibit that are not easily noticed. Logs may be moved or changed, food items (including fruits, veggies, bugs and nuts) may be scattered in the tall grass or even snow and perfumes or spices may be sprayed/sprinkled throughout the exhibit. Also, our exhibits are designed to be inherently enriching. Whether it is the glass-fronted exhibit or the proximity to another exhibit, our animals are enriched by the world around them every day. For this reason, many of the obvious enrichment items are often not seen on exhibit, as they are saved and given to our animals in their off-exhibit spaces. Below you can learn about the different categories of enrichment that are provided to the animals at the Akron Zoo in order to encourage a variety of natural behaviors.

Enrichment Categories

Occupational Environment 

This type of enrichment is designed to “occupy” an animal’s time, and many items can easily fall into the category of “toy.” We provide various sizes and shapes of hard plastic toys on the ground, hanging and in the water for the animals to interact and “play” with.

Physical Environment 

This type of enrichment includes rearranging and changing up the layout and substrates of the exhibits. Logs or rocks may be added or moved, perching options may be moved so birds and primates experience a different perspective while moving around or sitting. Have you ever noticed the vertical tree branches in different locations throughout the grizzly bear exhibit? There are actually sunken PVC tubes permanently placed in multiple locations throughout the exhibit. This allows animal care staff to replace trees/branches as new pieces become available without needing to purchase and replant trees every couple of weeks! Since there are multiple locations, staff can also choose which location to use, or leave empty to add additional variety. Also, the “tree” in the center of the jaguar exhibit and the “rock” in the middle of the snow leopard exhibit are both heated! During the winter, you will frequently see animals in these exhibits hanging out on these.

Sensory 

This type of enrichment aims to stimulate the senses of the animals. Olfactory enrichment can include perfume and spices as well as synthetic animal scents. Visual enrichment can include brightly colored enrichment items or the opportunity to watch a movie when not on exhibit! Auditory enrichment can include a variety of nature sounds, either native to their area or unknown, or even some music from the radio. Tactile enrichment can include ice and snow, or a mat to stand or lay on that has a different texture. A variety of tastes can also be provided and will be described more in the novel food category.

Novel Food/Diet Presentation 

This type of enrichment not only provides novel tastes (and smells) with food items not commonly included in an animal’s diet (after being approved by a veterinarian), it also includes the presentation of the food item itself. Instead of cutting an apple into small squares, it may be given whole or in larger slices. Food items may also be hidden in boxes, tubes or toys that require an animal to manipulate or problem solve to remove the food items. On hot days we may even provide some extra treats in ice blocks!

Social 

This type of enrichment aims to provide species-appropriate social opportunities for the animals at the Akron Zoo. Some species are primarily solitary in the wild, some live in pairs or small groups and other tend to live in larger groups. Some of these experiences are easier to simulate than others. Some of our buildings (snow leopard and jaguar, lion and tiger) house multiple animals that can hear, smell and sometimes see one another (but not interact directly), thereby providing safe social opportunities. Native sounds and mirrors can also be provided in off exhibit areas to simulate a larger group setting and often times encourages natural vocalizations and displays.

Human Interaction 

This type of enrichment often includes training sessions and public interaction through the exhibit glass! Have you ever “played” with the penguins by running back and forth at the exhibit, or had the female lion paw at you through the glass? How about letting a grizzly bear or otter “sniff” and “chase” your hand or a stuffed animal through the glass? Then you have helped to enrich our animals! Training sessions conducted by our animal care staff offer physical and mental challenges for the animal being trained. The animal must pay attention to what the trainer is asking, and if they provide the correct response they get a treat!


What is Animal Training?

Animal Training is based on operant conditioning, which is a type of learning in which an animal’s behavior is determined by its consequences. Therefore, an animal is more likely to repeat a behavior if it is given a reward after completing it (such as a favorite food item).

Why do we train animals?

Animal TrainingAnimals at the Akron Zoo are trained for a variety of reasons. Training can be a great enrichment opportunity in which the animal may be challenged mentally and physically. Our animals are also trained to shift onto (and off of exhibit) for safe maintenance and cleaning. The majority of behaviors that animals learn are to allow them to participate in their own medical care, thereby making these situations less stressful. Developing a positive relationship with each animal also decreases fear and aggression. Animals that participate in training sessions are also a great opportunity for public education. Staff at the Zoo have the opportunity to share animal and conservation information to a group of guests while they watch a training session conducted by a member of our Animal Care staff.

What behaviors are trained at the Akron Zoo?

The majority of behaviors that are trained at the Akron Zoo allow the animals to participate in their own medical care. A short list includes:

  • Target/station
  • Crate/kennel
  • Mouth open
  • Scale
  • Sit/lay down
  • Stand up (often on hind feet)
  • Present body parts (foot, hip, shoulder, belly, tail, etc)
  • Injection
  • Ultrasound
  • X-ray
  • Blood draw

There are a few key terms involved in operant conditioning training: the cue, the bridge, and the reward.

  • The cue is the signal (may be a hand signal, spoken word, and/or training tool such as a target) that the trainer gives to the animal, indicating which behavior they are asking for.
  • The bridge is the sound (clicker, whistle or spoken word) that the trainer gives to the animal after they have offered the correct behavior. This sound “bridges” the time between when the animal offers the correct behavior and when it receives a reward.
  • The reward (or reinforcement) is often a well-liked food item from the animal’s diet that the animal receives soon after offering the correct behavior.

Where does training occur at the Akron Zoo?

Many of our animals are trained on exhibit during the day! Most of the time, this is done by animal care staff while they are feeding and cleaning, and may only last 1-2 minutes. Other training, especially for our dangerous animals, is done while they are in their off exhibit space. Many of the animal holding buildings have special training areas built in to accommodate specific training projects. Finally, you can observe grizzly bear training at the Grizzly Bear Training Wall in Grizzly Ridge every day during the summer! The times vary daily so be sure to check with Zoo staff when you arrive!