Sandra Kuijmans and Patrick Bos

26 July 2020

How do we keep our animals busy and mentally strong?

The answer: Enrichment!!

What is enrichment and why do we give it?
In the wild, big cats deal with new stimuli in their environment every day. They are curious by nature and like to investigate everything. This is how cubs learn what is dangerous and what is not, for instance by meeting snakes or porcupines, a stray twig, a bush, things like that. Scents are very important too. Through scents they can detect prey, but also the presence of rivals. Like we read a newspaper, big cats ‘read’ their environment through scents.
If we wouldn’t provide enrichment for our animals, they would be reading the same newspaper every day. You can imagine that they would get bored quickly. To investigate the same object every day, or lack of objects, means a lack of stimuli, which causes boredom. This could lead to stereotypical behaviour.
Boredom and lack of stimuli are two different things though. An animal can be presented with new toys regularly, but not be interested at all. There is no lack of stimuli, but the animal still gets bored. This brings us to the answer to our question ‘What is enrichment?’
Enrichment is only enrichment if the animal is interested in it.

Types of enrichment

Food enrichment
Food enrichment simply means presenting food in a less accessible way than usual. This can be done is many different ways. For instance, we hide small pieces of meat in the big hall, so the cats can search for them, or we put bigger pieces of meat in toys or cardboard boxes. We can make it easy or very difficult. Easy would for instance be a big piece of meat under a traffic cone. The animal ‘just’ needs to push or pull the cone over to reach the meat – easy for most, hard for some. Hard would be a piece of meat in a cardboard cylinder, blocked on both sides with small boat floaters. The animal first has to remove the floaters and then try to get to the meat in the cylinder.



Scent enrichment
As we mentioned before, scents are very important. Fortunately, we can apply scents in many different ways. We can use natural scents, like prey animal dung or certain herbs, but also pure ethereal oils. These oils can be applied on toys or fixed objects in the enclosures or the big hall. We avoid our cats getting into direct contact with the oils. The herbs we can hide in something, or fix a herb plant to the fencing. Of course, if an animal is in the big hall and another animal was in there earlier that day, investigating their scent is also a form of scent enrichment.

VIDEO SIMBA with scent bench


Toys come in all kinds of shape, size and material. Examples of toys we use are boat and ship fenders, floaters, (very sturdy) balls, traffic cones, car tires, gunny sacks, paper bags, cardboard boxes and cylinders, toys made out of firehose and small tree trunks. Many toys we can fill with things like straw, smaller toys, dung and fur of prey animals, oils or herbs. Of course, the toys have to be safe for our big cats and preferably they are a bit lion and tiger proof, so that we can use them more than once. ‘Indestructible’ is not a word we use; these animals eventually destroy all toys, which is fine.


VIDEO KUMA AND VALESCA (you can hear Vladimir playing with a ball in the background)


Dung, blood and fur from prey animals
These three enrichments are really part of scent and food enrichment, but we’d like to mention them separately. These specific, natural scents have a huge effect on the big cats. Many of our animals love to rub the scents all over themselves by rolling in them. We can put the fur and dung into old toys, which makes them very interesting again. The blood we use is deer blood, which we put into a syphon with a long, bent straw attached, for use during the training sessions as a special reward.

Vegetables, fruit and ice lollies
Obviously, we don’t feed our animals vegetables or fruit. But we do use these as a combination of scent enrichment and toys. In summer we use for instance oranges and watermelons and in the autumn pumpkins. The big cats investigate them and play with them. Not all animals like fruits and vegetables. Like we said before; enrichment starts being enrichment if an animal is interested in it.
When it’s hot, we give the animals big ice lollies. We fill buckets with water and pieces of meat, deer blood, fruit, etc., which we put in the freezer and then we have huge ice lollies.

Fixed objects and plants
Fixed objects can only serve as enrichment once. As soon as they are investigated, they’re not interesting anymore. But we can use them in different ways. We can move the wooden beds around, to change the interior of the inside enclosures. We make hammock beds out of old firehose. The fixed wooden plateaus in the outside enclosures cannot be moved, but we can attach other enrichment to them or hide something in them.
The greenery is part of the interior of the enclosures. But planting something new with the aim to let it take root and stay upright is quite a challenge and a bit of a gamble. Not because of the soil quality, but because of the animals. Most lions demolish everything. A newly planted tree is extremely interesting and is usually pulled out within an hour. If we’re lucky, it comes out in one piece so we can try again in another spot. Occasionally we try small trees or bamboo in the big hall, but these usually don’t survive either. A pity for us, but it’s still fun enrichment! The animals pull the greens out of the soil, throw them into the air and run around the hall with them. In winter, Christmas trees are very popular too. In theory they are trees, but the animals use them as toys.

Training is also a type of enrichment. Most animals love to use their brain and find out what they need to do to get a piece of meat. We make use of this to do health and crate training with them. The purpose of health training is that we can take a good and close look at an animal, to determine his or her health. For example, we train the animals to stand on their hind legs to examine their paws and their belly. We can also spot joint problems this way.
Crate training is done with animals that will be moving in the near future. We familiarise them with the transport crate by making it fun and interesting by means of food or toys. The aim is that they do not need sedation when they are leaving for their new home. They will voluntarily walk into the transport crate!
Training is always completely voluntary, and we always make it a fun exercise. It is, after all, a type of enrichment. If an animal doesn’t want to cooperate or is not interested, we do not push them. Sometimes they just walk away int the middle of a training session, sometimes they don’t respond at all, sometimes they don’t find it very interesting and sometimes they are really enthusiastic and can’t wait to start. Cats will be cats…

Hunting simulator
Hunting with the hunting simulator is a way of practising an animal’s natural behaviour. It is also a type of enrichment and most animals love to go hunting. We have a rotation schedule to ensure that all big cats that like to hunt, get their turn. Some animals are not interested at all and that is fine too. We don’t push them. Enrichment is only enrichment if the animal finds it enriching. But most of our big cats enjoy the hunting simulator. Each session is different, because the simulator is controlled by means of a joystick, operated by different people. A hunt is therefore never the same and quite unpredictable. We usually use a piece of meat on the simulator, and sometimes a toy or a goose wing. The latter flutters through the air, with fanatical hunting sessions as a result.