What is Enrichment?

Have you ever visited the zoo on a hot summer day and thought, ‘None of the animals ever DO anything!’ When it’s 95 degrees (or more!) and the humidity is high, any exhibit you go to is likely to have a lot of animals just laying low. They might be sleeping, hiding in the shade or just lying there resting. Unlike some humans, animals are not wasteful! So when the sun is high and the temperatures soar, all of the animals know that it’s better to relax and conserve their energy! By remaining inactive during peak daytime temperatures, the animals use less energy to cool themselves and have more energy at their disposal when temperatures drop and it’s time to forage.

mongoose baby enrichment

As zookeepers, we respect the animals’ natural behaviors and try our best to encourage them to exhibit the same behaviors here at the Houston Zoo that they would in the wild. However, we also understand that acres and acres of sleeping animals aren’t exactly the most exciting thing in the world for guests to see! By offering enrichment to our animals on a daily basis, zookeepers both facilitate the exhibition of natural behaviors by our animals and provide an opportunity for guests to see them demonstrating those behaviors!

enrichment watermelon1Enrichment makes something more meaningful, fuller or rewarding. By enriching our animals every day, we keepers try to make their day more rewarding and full of new experiences. Consequently, this can have a meaningful impact on our guests if they are lucky enough to see our animals enjoying their enrichment. That’s why Enrichment Day is hands-down the best day to see pretty much all of the animals doing exciting things! While keepers enrich the animals every day, on Enrichment Day, all of the sections in the zoo take extra time to put together the most exciting enrichment activities possible and engage guests by having extra Keeper Chats to explain what behaviors we are encouraging our animals to display.

chickens enrichment

While there are many ways to categorize enrichment, 3 of the most common categories are ‘naturalistic,’ ‘novel/different’ and ‘food-based.’ If we wanted to highlight ‘naturalistic’ behaviors we keepers might put out fresh branches from a tree to encourage a porcupine to nibble on them or spray perfume in an exhibit to entice a fox or mongoose to scent mark the area. When we want the animals to experience ‘novel/different’ enrichment we may put a plastic pool filled with balls in with our chickens or give a giant ball to an eland or giraffe to kick around. Food-based enrichment is by far the animals’ favorites and are almost always guaranteed to get a response. Sometimes keepers make it easy and put the animals’ favorite food right out where they can see it, but sometimes we make it more challenging! Putting their food under some hay so that they have to forage to find it or freezing it into an ice pop so they have to work to get it out are ways we can challenge our animals to ‘work’ for their food, just like they would in the wild! When we keepers are feeling really crazy we might even combine these categories into a multi-faceted enrichment and that is the sort of thing you guests can expect to see a lot of on Enrichment Day!

So join us, on September 19th 2015, and make sure to check the ‘Plan Your Day’ kiosk at the front of the zoo or take a look at our special Enrichment Day map so that you know which animals are getting enriched at what time! The only bad thing about Enrichment Day is that there are so many chats going on that you won’t be able to see them all. Make sure you plan to visit your favorite animals and enjoy seeing more animals doing things this summer than you ever thought possible!

Icy Treats for Enrichment Day!

Written by Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays, Animal Nutrition SupervisorElias making ice-pops

Did you know that the Animal Nutrition department here at the Houston Zoo is also involved in helping the animal sections with daily enrichment?  One of their top requests is for their famous ice-pops!

The Animal Nutrition Department staff definitely enjoy making ice-pops for the Houston Zoo’s animals.

This is normally done throughout the summer months and for special events. All staff members not only hold the title of Animal Nutrition Zookeeper but are all considered “ Ice-Poptologists.” They are always looking for ways to give the animals enrichment and ice-pops are a big hit. It keeps the animals cool, but also stimulates them mentally and physically. The ice-poptologists use different treats such as sunflower seeds, currants, assorted produce or fish, colored waters, decaf fruit teas, and sugar free Kool-Aid. The animals may lick the ice, turn it over or push it trying to get out what ever treat might be in there. Ice-pops come in an assortment of sizes from a 3 oz. cup to a 55 gallon bucket depending on the animal receiving the icy treat.

This year, orangutan keeper, Tammy Burhmester took a bag of assorted toys, consisting of loofah sponges, toothbrushes and rubber duckies to the Animal Nutrition staff. Elias Cantu is the Animal Nutrition keeper in charge of making orangutan ice-pops. He chooses a toy and adds it to the bucket along with sugar free Kool-Taylor making bear icepopAid and a chain to hang it in the exhibit. Visitors have fun watching the orangutans as they lick the ice to see what the prize is.

Taylor Mullikin, an Animal Nutrition keeper, is the ice-poptologist for bear ice-pops. She switches off between fish and assorted produce and adds colored water and sprinkles to her creations.

The Houston Zoo animals get these amazing icy treats all thanks to TXU Energy Presents Chill Out.



National Zoo Keeper Week – Wren’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!

Wren Schroeder – Hoofstock Keeper

hoof stockI always knew I wanted to work with animals, but I wasn’t always 100% sure how I wanted to do that. So I did an internship working with birds of prey and hoofstock animals at another AZA zoo, just to see if I for sure liked it. I realized that if I could be an unpaid intern and be excited to get out of bed every day to go to a job like that, then that was what I wanted to do as a career.

The most enjoyable part about my job is finding people in the public that appreciate a unique species as much as I do. Seeing the excitement, enthusiasm, and compassion of guests is what I love the most. What makes this job worthwhile and the most rewarding are the amazing guests that will sit through a Meet the Keeper chat and express their curiosity about the animals and ask questions to learn more about the individual animals here at the Houston Zoo and the conservation efforts being done internationally and locally to help different species.

I would advise volunteering/interning as much as possible. You can sit and learn about animals and their behaviors in books. Then just simply applying what you have learned in those books by working around them, seeing how they react to things, and getting hands on experience is what truly will help you in zoo keeping career. Also, work with some different species while you volunteer, other than just the obvious ones you already like. You would be surprised by animals that never really interested you, but then after working with them you have a new found respect for them.

I would want people to know that this job is not just about feeding the animals and cleaning up after them. After enduring the weather Houston throws at us, doing workload that comes with working with any animal, and the highs and lows of the job. It is then also about taking the time during the day to go out and educate the public about each of the animals that we get the opportunity to work with. Every animal we work with is different and unique in their own way. Getting to see the guests’ faces light up when we share our own stories about each of these animals is what really makes the hard work worth it.

A Day in the Life of a Houston Zoo Intern

This post was written by Annie Murchison.

rhinoHow many people can say they have shoveled giraffe AND rhino poop?  I, Annie Murchison, Public Relations intern at the Houston Zoo can now proudly cross that one off my bucket list. In order to better understand the inner workings of the zoo, I ventured outside of my usual office routine to shadow the hoofed stock team last Thursday.  Hoofed stock keepers care for mammals with hooves and include everything from rhinos to okapis to giraffes.

I grew up coming to the Houston Zoo for camp, field trips, and family fun.  My six-year-old self desperately wanted to be a zoo keeper, all the way up until the point where I realized that biology was not my strong suit. (However, I learned Thursday that one can work their way up to become a keeper with a psychology major and good amount of experience.) Thursday was essentially a childhood dream come true.

giraffeMy day started bright and early at 7 a.m. in the hoofed stock trailer for a team meeting before heading off to begin work. The team meets up every morning before the zoo opens to get their assignments and discuss goals for the day. I was assigned to team of keepers and their interns that looked after giraffes and rhinos for the morning. Our first stop was the rhino exhibit—we began with clearing yesterday’s hay from the exhibit, along with any poop. Once this was done, we spread out new bales of hay and scattered lettuce and carrots around the habitat for the rhinos to find. Heading back to the barn, I was able to get up close and personal with the zoo’s three white rhinos, watching keepers perform training exercises and weigh all three before moving them to their outside yard. The zoo’s rhinos weigh about 3,000 pounds each and still have a bit of growing to do. Adult male white rhinoceroses can weigh up to 5,000 pounds! Next we moved to giraffes. Like rhinos, our first duty was clearing the space of any poop from the outdoor yard and placing food around the habitat. Once that was done, we moved the giraffes outside and began to clean the poop that accumulated in the barn over the night—no easy task. To fully clean the barn we shoveled it out, hosed the barn down, and eventually power washed the floor, all of which took about three hours.

Unfortunately my day as a zookeeper at the zoo ended at noon, when I returned to my office for an entirely different kind of work. Thursday provided me with a behind-the-scenes look at, not only the animals that call the Houston Zoo home, but the keepers who go above and beyond to care for them. They do more than just clean the exhibit, feed, and care for the animals; they have a special bond with each animal and can recognize their individual personalities and daily moods.  Life as an animal (and intern) at the Houston Zoo is pretty awesome.

Making the Right “Call” for Chimpanzees and Gorillas

This post was written by Meredith Ross and Ashley Kramer.

gorillaDid you know that doing something as simple as recycling your cellphone here at the zoo can help save chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild? Join us on the weekend of July 18th and 19th from 10 AM – 3 PM to celebrate “Spotlight on Species: African Apes” to learn more about our great apes here at the zoo and how to help their wild counterparts.  During the event, you can exchange three cell phones or small electronic devices for a magnet painted by one of our great apes.  Just turn them in to the primate staff working the event at the Great Ape Gallery in our African Forest and receive your prize.

Charlie, our oldest chimpanzee, will be celebrating his 44th birthday with a Christmas in July theme.

On Saturday we will be wishing our chimpanzees Abe and Charlie a happy 42nd and 44th birthday with a Christmas in July themed party. On Sunday we will be throwing a 31st birthday extravaganza for one of our silverback gorillas, Chaka.There will be tons of fun activities for the whole family where you can learn how chimpanzees use tools, how to tell the difference between a monkey and an ape, and more! We will also have special feedings for our chimpanzees and gorillas all throughout the day.

Chaka will be celebrating his 31st birthday extravaganza during the Spotlight on Species: African Ape

Items will be for sale painted by our very own primates here at the zoo to benefit two amazing African ape sanctuaries, Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary and GRACE.  We hope to see you all there! Go to www.gracegorillas.org and www.janegoodall.org/programs/tchimpounga-chimpanzee-rehabilitation-center to learn more about GRACE and Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Ni Hao from China (Conclusion)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, just wrapped up their trip to China. Tarah and Kevin are worked with Chinese Zoos and blogged about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Tarah Jacobs.

Our time in China has come to an end. Over the course of the 2 ½ weeks we were there we met some fantastic people and amazing animals.

whole groupWe had the opportunity to hold 2 workshops on training, enrichment and enclosure design. Over the course of those 2 workshops we had 46 people from 7 different zoos attend. The attendees were animal keepers, animal managers, veterinarians, and directors from their respective zoos.  This gave us a unique opportunity to have many different points of view and many fantastic ideas!

tarah teachingSome highlights:

  • Watching groups from each workshop create and present enclosure designs. We saw so many creative and amazing designs
  • Seeing the smile of the participants (and us!) while the animals enjoyed the enrichments that were created for them. For some animals it was the first time they had been given any enrichment!
  • Watching a Bird keeper from Chengdu zoo train 26 macaws to station when he called each of their names
  • Watching the kangaroo keeper at Hangzhou zoo train each of the female kangaroos to come over and stand so he could check the progress of the joeys in their pouches
  • Meeting amazing colleagues from half way across the world

keeper with monkey

We would like to thank the Hangzhou Zoo and the Chengdu Zoo for being amazing hosts for these workshops. Everyone went out of their way to make sure they were successful and we are so grateful for the opportunity to share our experiences with everyone who attended.


Ni Hao from China: Houston Zoo Interacting with Animals Around the World (Update #4)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, are currently in China. Tarah and Kevin are working with Chinese Zoos and blogging about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Kevin Hodge.

After a 2.5 hour flight from Hangzhou we arrived in Chengdu. We were greeted at the airport by Daisy, a Panda keeper from the Chengdu Zoo. As we drove to the zoo she explained that Chengdu is a rapidly growing city of around 10 million people. We noticed that the most popular mode of transportation is a moped, even for families.  We saw a family of four riding on a moped but we felt more comfortable traveling by car.

IMG_3708The Director of the Veterinary and Animal Care, Mr. Yu, was waiting at the zoo to greet us when we arrived.  It was great to see a familiar face in Chengdu. We met Mr. Yu when he visited the Houston Zoo in December and we both had an opportunity to show him around our zoo and now, he is able to give us a tour of his zoo.

IMG_3749The Chengdu zoo is very fortunate to have a few animals that we do not have in Houston including, South China tiger, Golden monkey Hog deer, Takin, and Giant panda.  Mr. Yu has hired translators from Animals Asia to attend and assist with interpreting while we are here to make sure we all understand each other’s ideas.  Overall there are 26 participates from 4 different zoos from around this area attending the workshop. Our plan is the same as it was in Hangzhou. We will present our power points on Exhibit Design, Enrichment and Training and then visit several of the exhibits in the zoo to brainstorm on ways to improve the exhibit or ways to start an enrichment and training plan for the animals.

In addition to the workshop Mr. Yu and several of the keepers introduced us to the Szechuan style food that they are famous for in Chengdu.  Saying the food is spicy is definitely an understatement!  Even though we both like eating spicy food, we were in tears and sweating while we enjoyed our dinner.  After eating they informed us that the food we were eating is very mild compared to what they normally eat.  They said it was what they would feed 5 year old children here!

Ni Hao from China: Houston Zoo Interacting with Animals Around the World (Update #3)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, are currently in China. Tarah and Kevin are working with Chinese Zoos and blogging about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Kevin Hodge.

Our week in Hangzhou has ended. Over the course of the workshop we discussed training, enrichment and exhibit design. The Hangzhou Zoo is planning new exhibits and we were happy to lend our advice.  If there was an answer we didn’t know, the animal care staff back at Houston Zoo was happy to help us out.  Many Houston Zoo staff supplied us with information, pictures and answers to questions the keepers and managers at the participating zoos had. Even though it is just two of us, physically here, the whole staff back at the zoo is lending a hand to help out these zoos.

Raccoon dogs receiving enrichment for the first time ever

We assisted the participants with creating and implanting new training and enrichment ideas. The zoo keepers were excited to take this knowledge back to their zoos. They couldn’t wait to get back and make enrichment for their animals and email us the pictures!

The last day we had each group work on a project of designing a new exhibit and presenting the exhibit to the group. A few groups took advantage of the opportunity to get input from everyone on an exhibit they wanted to redesign in their zoo.

IMG_8468Overall the workshop was a great success. There were many new friendships formed and a new communication network was established. Most importantly everyone’s passion for providing the best animal care was reinvigorated and we plan on keeping in touch with everyone to continue to provide advice and support. We would like to thank the Hangzhou zoo for their amazing hospitality!  We have never eaten so much food in our lives!

Next stop Chengdu Zoo in South West China!

Year of the Goat- Featuring Raisin Bran and Bailey

In honor of the Chinese animal zodiac, we’re celebrating the Year of the Goat! We have over 20 different goats representing 5 different breeds. In addition to their different colors, shapes, and sizes, all of our goats also express individual preferences and personalities!

To highlight our goats individual ‘flair’, we’ve decided to feature a different goat each month and share what makes each one so unique and lovable!


goats1Did you know that the astrological sign of Gemini presides over the majority of the month of June? The symbol for Gemini is a pair of twins, so we welcome the month of June with our first ever DOUBLE goat of the month! In past blogs it has been mentioned that goats very frequently give birth to twins so it was easy for keepers to find a pair of twins in the Contact Area; the challenge was choosing WHICH set of twins to highlight!  Keepers finally decided that the twins Raisin Bran and Bailey deserved some time in the spotlight.

goats2The first thing many guests may wonder is why is there a goat named Raisin Bran? Both Raisin Bran and Bailey were born on a farm and their former owner named them for us. Raisin Bran was originally named ‘Coffee’ because their owner used to enjoy her morning coffee while playing with the goat kids and he liked to jump in her lap. Coffee just didn’t seem to fit so she changed his name to Raisin Bran because his color reminded her of bran flakes. Bailey was given her name in honor of the owner’s sister’s horse.

goats3As kids, both Raisin Bran and Bailey had very different personalities. Raisin Bran was the cuddly one and Bailey was a bit more shy and standoffish. When they first came to the Houston Zoo, the twins continued this trend. As time went on, Bailey began to hang out with our adult female Saanen goat Elsa. Elsa is a confident goat and some of her confidence seems to have rubbed off on Bailey. Bailey will now come up to be brushed and petted by children just like her brother Raisin Bran does. If you would like to see more photos of the twins as kids you can visit their former owner’s blog at: http://farmfreshforensics.com/farm_blog/?y=2013&m=4.

Ni Hao from China: Houston Zoo Interacting with Animals Around the World (Continued)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, are currently in China. Tarah and Kevin are working with Chinese Zoos and blogging about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Kevin Hodge.

Today with the class we decided to pick a section of the Zoo that was most in need of enrichment.  The four groups, Tarah, and I picked different animals to enrich and we talked with the group about what behaviors we would try and encourage.   The group picked animals from the section that were in smaller, less complex exhibits. These animals either showed stereotypical behaviors or were difficult to see because they were always hiding.

exhibitWe gathered PVC pipes, boxes, wood wool, paper bags, newspaper, perfume, and spices along with food items from each of the animal’s diets.  We gave a workshop on how to make puzzle feeders out of PVC and had each group construct their own PVC feeders.  The students were very excited and impressed us with their creativity and how much effort they put in to making new toys and perching for the animals.  After we finished making our enrichment, each group gave it to the animal that they selected. As we watched the animals interact with their new enrichment items, the group that created the enrichment gave a presentation on what they had created and what behaviors they hoped to encourage or discourage.  After all of the animals received their enrichment we evaluated its success and talked about what could have been done differently the next time they gave enrichment.

groupTarah and I fell in love with the raccoon dogs and the wild boars that we decided to enrich for our project. We presented to the group on we gave as well. All of the animals including the red foxes, Arctic foxes, raccoons, raccoon dogs and wild boars really seemed to enjoy the enrichment.  There is still a little bit of a struggle in China to get all the keepers on board with providing enrichment.  One of the keepers in the section was upset because we were creating a big mess for him to clean up the next day.  After speaking with the Director he agreed that since we told him it is important to meet the animal’s, guest’s and keeper’s needs  he allowed the keeper to pick up a little each day instead of having to pick it all up at once.  Hopefully, the keeper will begin to see the benefits of providing enrichment and will soon start to give out enrichment on his own.

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