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Zoo improvements should benefit all animals - University of Exeter

Zoo improvements should benefit all animals and include a wide range of “enrichment” techniques, researchers say. Zoos have made great advances in “environmental enrichment” – making changes to encourage natural behaviour and improve animal wellbeing. But researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Winchester say efforts disproportionally focus on large, “popular” animals – with less focus on creatures such as invertebrates, fish and reptiles.

Clown fish enrichment - a mix of corals and anemones provides a dynamic environment for fish to interact with (credit Paul Rose)
Clown fish enrichment - a mix of corals and anemones provides a dynamic environment for fish to interact with (credit Paul Rose)

The study, based on interviews with zoo professionals, revealed support for enrichment – but a lack of evaluation and evidence to measure the effectiveness of changes.

“There are a range of different types of enrichment, and it seems that only certain types are used for certain species,” said Dr Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter. “For example, enrichment for large predators will often focus on the way they are fed. But nutrition is only one of the five categories of enrichment – along with the physical environment, sensory stimulation, occupation (activities) and social structure.”

Previous Exeter research showed that research carried out in zoos focusses disproportionately on animals that are popular with zoo visitors – and a similar pattern exists in enrichment.

“It’s common to see a lot of effort devoted to enriching the environment for lions or tigers,” said Dr Rose. “But who considers giving enrichment to invertebrates? We wanted to investigate what enrichment is out there for the ‘less exciting’ species we house in the zoo. Invertebrates, birds, reptiles and fish are all complex beings, and each species has evolved for a particular niche – so it’s possible to enrich their environments to reflect their natural habitats and social structures.”

The paper, published in the Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, is entitled: “Concepts, applications, uses and evaluation of environmental enrichment: Perceptions of zoo professionals.”