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ANIMAL ENRICHMENT: ITS IMPORTANCE – NOW MORE THAN EVER

(For Humans and Animals Alike)

By Laurie Macha, Curator & Carey Richard, Asst. Curator –Mystic Aquarium

It’s obvious that veterinary care, proper diet and habitat conditions are essential to the well-being of animals in human care – whether that’s Lucky the Lab, Felix the cat, Juno the beluga or Jeanne the Octopus. But, what might be less obvious for an aquarium animal is the importance of enrichment to animal welfare.

Formally termed behavioral husbandry, enrichment is the component of daily animal care that focuses on how animals interact with their physical and social environment. Important goals of behavioral husbandry include voluntary participation in healthcare and, in Mystic Aquarium’s case, conservation research. Another important component of behavioral husbandry is the opportunity for the animals in our care to engage in behaviors that are typical to the species.

Each day, we vary the animal’s feed times and even the amount of food they receive at various sessions (ensuring they ultimately get their required daily caloric intake) and giving them toys with goals to stimulate species specific behaviors such as foraging, environmental investigation, social dynamics and play.

The play often includes “toys” like feeder balls, sugar free gelatin servings, simulated kelp forests, water sprays and hose toys (just to name a few).

Since the unfortunate but necessary closures of accredited facilities around the country, this type of enrichment has made its way into pop culture. Even our own Clara the California sea lion and Rex the black Argentinian Tegu have gone viral.

These ‘field trips’, while incredibly engaging for the public, are not done for publicity.

So, while we have a dedicated and compassionate team of animal care professionals here every day to ensure that the animals get the very best care available we are also working very hard to keep everything as normal as possible for each and every animal! The vacant galleries, empty theaters, and desolate outdoor pathways likely go virtually unnoticed by some animals.  There are others; however, that do notice absence of activity.

Juno, who has earned a reputation of this engagement with guests at the window, surely detects the difference during the Aquarium’s closure.  California sea lions experience the same sort of engagement with guests at their own underwater viewing. Penguins, Seal and sea lions at Pacific Northwest recognize guests engaging at their habitat as well. Even reptiles that regularly participate in Scales & Tails experience enrichment.

We have found that most of the animals show interest when regular maintenance is being done like sweeping, window washing and more.

Now more than ever with the shutdown, we do planned enrichment throughout the day for all species. We have asked those employees working through the closure to spend lunches or breaks visiting the animals. It is not unusual in their unprecedented time to see a picnic lunch at Arctic Coast with Juno or on the main floor with Taco the Tortoise and Blue the Blue-tongued skink.  

Because, let’s be honest, in these trying times HUMANS NEED ENRICHMENT TOO (look out for a new hashtag).  World-class animal care is unequivocally our top priority, but we can all use to blow off some steam from time to time.

We also recently brought Cork, a harbor seal to the main gallery to explore. Taking advantage of the closure allowed the team to expand a behavior that they have been working on with Cork for some time. This behavior is beneficial for many reasons including the ability to shift between habitats, expanded outreach opportunity with guests and, of course, enrichment.

Enrichment (for both animals and humans) is so important, in fact, we’ve made it a bit of a competition. 

As a way to ensure that animal care remain seamless throughout the closure, precautions are in place also to ensure the health and safety of the essential staff. One such precaution is the designation of two separate and distinct care teams for all animal care areas.

Trying to have some levity in a very difficult time, we have named ourselves “Laurie’s Lysol” and “Carey’s Clorox”.

These are difficult times for all of us with the Shelter-in-Place order, operating on a skeleton crew and missing many of our colleagues, interns and volunteers. It is our goal to remain deeply engaged and keenly focused on providing the best animal care while finding ways to inspire our two teams, which no longer crossover, to channel their energy and creativity.

It is our hope that we can stay in touch with each other through this friendly competition that will ultimately benefit and enrich the lives for our animals. We invite you to join in this “rivalry” by following it on all of our social media channels!

Thankfully, the animals have no idea what the human world is experiencing right now! We are working so hard to give them everything they need and deserve and we haven’t missed a beat!  We are incredibly fortunate to be able to care for the animals. It’s even a bit therapeutic; especially in these trying times!

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