Hi, I’m Naomi and I’m one of the research students at Newquay Zoo. I’m conducting a research project on the impact of environmental enrichment when naturalistic and non-naturalistic versions of the same enrichment device are used.

Environmental enrichment (EE) is the process of providing a stimulating environment for zoo animals to help improve their health and well-being. Basically, it’s all about keeping our animals happy. EE allows animals to exercise choice, attempt problem solving, explore and play, whilst also offering them the opportunity to perform natural behaviours. It’s vital that our animals are kept as happy and as healthy as possible and EE is a great way to stimulate them both physically and mentally, ensuring that their welfare is as high as it can possibly be.

At Newquay Zoo we use EE in a number of ways. We provide our lions with papier-mâché snowmen to destroy, or give our ring-tailed lemurs scented rope balls to investigate - these stimulate their olfactory system. In zoos, the most frequently employed method of EE involves food. Food is a great motivator for animals (not to mention humans), so this type of enrichment tends to work best for all species.

My research project involves conducting behavioural observations of the animals with the enrichment devices. It is incredibly important that the animal’s preference is taken into account when presenting them with any kind of novel object – we need to make sure that the impact on their welfare is not negative.

One of the two species I am studying is the yellow-breasted capuchin. This species is very intelligent, so cognitive enrichment is a great way to get them thinking. I am presenting our capuchins with a puzzle feeder that requires them to use their fingers, or a stick, to push the food reward along a shelf until it drops to a place where it can easily be retrieved. One puzzle feeder is covered in bark so it appears natural, the other is painted bright yellow on top to ensure it stands out in their naturalistic enclosure. Capuchins have been observed using tools in the wild, often to crack open nuts, so hopefully this puzzle feeder will be a great way to get them performing some natural behaviours.

At the moment, our two capuchins are much more interested in the enrichment items that are already established in their enclosure than the puzzle feeder that I’m presenting them with! They are more than happy to forage for the food that has been scattered around for them, or spend time playing with the logs and hanging objects that they already have. Whilst the capuchins are not using the puzzle feeder all that often, they have the choice to use it, and giving animals choice and control over their environment is a major component of EE.

The second species I am studying is the fishing cat. I am presenting them with two sets of Boomer balls; two patterned to look very natural, two brightly coloured to stand out in the naturalistic enclosure.

Boomer balls are hard, hollow plastic balls with holes in, built to withstand the powerful jaws of felines. I am putting a food reward inside to help increase the cats’ interest in them, and so far, they have been loving it! Both cats have been showing interest and manipulating the balls with their head and paws to retrieve their food reward. After managing to knock the balls into the water, the food inside fell out and both of our cats showed some natural fishing behaviours. Given that one of the aims of EE is to increase the performance of natural behaviours, this is incredibly exciting to watch!

Our fishing cats are notoriously elusive, and the addition of the Boomer balls at the front of the enclosure has meant that both our cats have become more visible to the public. While conducting my observations I’ve talked to some very excited visitors who have finally managed to spot the cats for the first time! So, if you happen to see me around the Zoo with a clipboard in hand, come and say hi, I’d love to know what you think.

Naomi Frost, research student

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