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Crafting “Presents” for the Animals
December 12, 2023

On a recent December afternoon, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park staff members spent time doing what might look like arts and crafts to an outsider. But to the keepers and animals, those arts and crafts are an essential part of the everyday life of the animals; it’s enrichment.

Enrichment items are things like food, smells, or toys that enhance the health and well-being of the animals in our care. Using these items in combination with knowledge of species’ natural history and behaviors, animal keepers can provide unique experiences that enhance the animal’s overall welfare.

During Northwest Trek’s annual Winter Wildland, running Dec. 26-Jan. 1, the animals will receive a wide variety of enrichments: cardboard gingerbread houses, paper chains, or food stuffed into decorations. Stray mountain goat fur or dropped elk antlers found in the Free-Roaming Area can be used as enticing ornaments. All the enrichments are thoughtfully crafted by staff, are holiday-themed, and filled with meatballs, veggies, chopped fruit, or other yummy items to encourage skunks, lynxes, beavers, and others to explore and investigate.

The different items represent the staff’s creativity in designing something safe and healthy to stimulate an animal. Staff use non-toxic paint and avoid using glue or duct tape.

And another big part is science. The enrichment experience should encourage species-specific behaviors and abilities and allow animals to exercise choice and control within their environments. The keepers start with what they know about a species and ask: ‘What behavior do we want to encourage?’ For a bear, that might be digging or swimming. For a lynx or cougar, it might be stalking or climbing trees. For a skunk, it might be foraging.

But enrichments aren’t all about food. Any item – even just a cardboard box – can be exciting for animals if it smells of something or someone new to them.

Winter Wildland runs Dec. 26-Jan. 1 from 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Learn more about Winter Wildland.