Enriching the Visitor Experience, Part One of Three
– By Stacey Ludlum, director of zoo and aquarium planning and design
In “Enriching the Visitor Experience: PGAV Destinations and Environmental Design” clearly defines and gives examples of what enrichment is today; how exceptionally well-designed enrichment can greatly benefit the visitor experience; and why enrichment isn’t a luxury in zoo design, but rather an essential starting point.
“In many ways, ‘choice’ equates to ‘freedom.’ The organism with the most choices can be said to have the greatest freedom (Coe, 1992).”
Environmental enrichment is all about choice. Historically, zoos, in a misguided attempt to ensure the health and well-being of animals, have minimized the complexity of animal habitats. This resulted in longer-lived animals, but also inadvertently resulted in higher incidences of stereotypical behaviors. Today, the common belief is that animals in captivity should be exposed to the “full range of environmental variability” (Snowdon, 1989), allowing the greatest control over their own habitat and lives as possible; granting the freedom of choice that we so often take for granted.
Although this philosophy is widely embraced throughout the zoo industry, the practice of environmental enrichment varies just as widely from institution to institution. From the most basic scenario relying entirely upon the creativity and dedication of individual keepers to entire departments dedicated to the systematic and zoo-wide application of environmental enrichment in all its forms, each zoo’s dedication and implementation strategies are as unique as the individual animals they enrich. Because of this, PGAV views environmental enrichment through the lens of two broad categories: ‘Habitat’ and ‘Keeper-Initiated.’
Habitat enrichment comprises all physical and climatic aspects of the captive environment. Traditionally, these elements would remain relatively static and uncontrollable by the animals. But understanding that the provision of variability–however subtle–equates to choice, allows us to view the habitat itself as enrichment (Coe, 2009). Providing variability leads to choice. Ability to select, for example, an elevated perch over a shaded cave or a sandy depression is enrichment. Offering a variety of water conditions like shallow streams, deep open water or waist-deep pools is also habitat enrichment. Beyond the physical elements of an exhibit, habitat enrichment also includes the ability to control or manipulate the micro-climate, such as offering comfortable sleeping options in both sun and shade, and the use of misters, heated rocks, or conditioned spaces. Other physical elements that provide enrichment are the size and shape of the habitat, inclusion of dig pits and permanent climbing structures, and the ability to offer multiple yards.
Keeper-Initiated enrichment is anything that depends on the staff for implementation. This includes everything from enrichment devices to sensory and food enrichment, social groupings, and behavioral conditioning. Keeper-initiated enrichment is what is most commonly thought of as ‘enrichment.’
According to Snowdon, enrichment “should be done in ways both animals and caregivers find rewarding (1989).” Therefore, PGAV works to balance the reliance on Habitat and Keeper-Initiated enrichment in every project to the degree to which the zoo itself feels comfortable. Since habitat enrichment is less intensive on staff and more intensive on designers, PGAV commonly takes the lead on this front. On the other hand, keeper-initiated enrichment relies almost solely on staff, thus we take a backseat encouraging dialogue in which keepers can explain their goals and philosophy. Understanding our clients’ needs is primary to our enrichment design philosophy as the best enrichment designs are only as effective as the extent to which they are used.