Enrichment, a Caregiver’s View

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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.