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Penny's Journal
KokoBlog is prepared by the Gorilla Foundation's Research/Care staff with the willing participation of gorillas Koko and Ndume, and the supervision of Dr. Penny Patterson, President and Director of Research. It is intended to provide an inside view of one of the most intelligent, loving and yet endangered species on Earth, made possible through breakthroughs in interspecies communication.

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Enrichment, a Caregiver's View by Andrea Apodaca Posted: Oct 28, 2012
Ndume (left) and Koko Enjoy Caregiver-prepared Enrichment  
Enrichment activities are crucial to the well-being of our gorillas, a piece of the whole that is caring for them. Enrichment consists of anything that can provide positive mental or physical stimulation. While this may sound easy, it requires astute observation of the gorillas’ natural behaviors and figuring out ways to either promote or enhance that behavior.

A simple example is promoting foraging behavior. Free-living gorillas spend a majority of their day looking for and eating food. In captivity, food is more often presented. To prevent boredom and encourage desirable behaviors, a caregiver can hide or place the food in mentally and physically challenging places. Another example is a puzzle box, in which the gorilla has to utilize his or her intellect to get the food out. Or, food can be rationed out at certain times so that the gorilla can continuously feed. I prefer employing all three of these enrichment techniques in distributing Ndume’s morning browse, while utilizing one or two throughout the day.

There are so many little things to learn. To me the most important is balance. Ideally an enrichment activity is neither too easy nor too complicated as both produce boredom and disinterest. I also feel that to be a good caregiver, one has to learn the gorillas’ personal behaviors to pick out the best activity. For example, hand Ndume a book and he’ll search through the pages looking for food, then toss it aside when he doesn’t find any. Koko, however, will sit herself down and go through page by page and look at the pictures, sign to herself, maybe even point out something to a caregiver. Ndume enjoys books read to him, but handing him one is not as good a choice as it would be for Koko.

I personally have learned a lot about both gorillas’ personalities based on enrichment activities, including what they like, what excites them, what frustrates them - their full range of feelings. That to me is really powerful, because so often people dismiss the idea that non-human animals have emotional depth, but that is completely untrue. While enrichment activities meet Koko and Ndume’s basic needs, they also shed light on their emotional and cognitive complexities.

Ndume Enjoys
Ndume Delights in his Decorated Room
About the Author(s):

Andrea Apodaca Caregiver/Researcher & Enrichment Coordinator
Andrea has had a life-long love of animals, started volunteering at a wildlife care center in her teens and then studying Animal Science at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. This extremely hands-on learning experience enabled her to take part in the care (and research) of multiple domesticated species.  In her fourth year at Cal Poly Andrea  got to intern at a local zoo.  When the opportunity to work at the Gorilla Foundation presented itself, Andrea felt like her goal that started so long ago was finally coming to fruition. The chance to work, help, and support not just any exotic animal, but the most unique and inspiring creature, Koko, as well as her companion Ndume, is beyond her wildest expectations. Andrea now promotes the idea that dreams do come true.

Please email us at  research_feedback@koko.org  if you have any questions, or would like to share an observation or insight about the preceding interspecies conversations. Your feedback can inform our research and is a vital part of our mission. Thank you.


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