Enrichment: What It Is and Why It’s Important

by Sam DeJarnett, Education Animal Coordinator

Portland Audubon is home to five resident birds and one turtle, who not only help educate our community as ambassadors for their species but also spread the message of conservation and the importance of protecting wildlife and wild places. These animals have all for one reason or another been determined to be non-releasable back to wild and were carefully selected for their adaptability to life in captivity.

Though they live in human care, they are still wild. But when we took them under our wing as residents, we became responsible for their well-being, including their physical and mental health.

One of the most important ways we provide and maintain a high standard of care for these animals is through enrichment activities. Enrichment is essential for any animal kept in human care like our wild residents, and even your dog, cat or guinea pig. It can come in many forms, but its purpose in the most basic form is to provide animals the opportunity to exhibit natural behaviors that are otherwise hard to simulate.

Julio, our 19-year-old female Great Horned Owl, participates in training with Educational Animal Coordinator Sam DeJarnett. Training is an important part of enrichment for the education animals, and can include teaching them to voluntarily weigh themselves on a scale or fly to a glove on cue.

For example, Common Ravens spend the majority of their days out in the wild exploring and using their innate problem-solving abilities to find food. They also spend a lot of time engaging in play behaviors. Because of this natural history, it is imperative that we provide enrichment for our resident Common Raven, Aristophanes, that allows him to explore, play, and use his intelligent and inquisitive brain.

Enrichment for Aristophanes can be as simple as hiding a portion of his diet inside a log or skull so he has to figure out how to find the food, or it can be as complex as training him to stack objects or color match items! The process of learning gives him the opportunity to problem solve and make choices, which directly impacts his mental and emotional well-being.

Each educational animal engages in enrichment and training every day (sometimes multiple times per day) to stimulate their minds, provide them opportunities to choose how they participate in their day, and allow them to demonstrate key behaviors like flying outside of their enclosures.

The mental, emotional and physical health of our educational animals is our number one priority for our educational bird program. We have asked these animals to spend their time in an unnatural way: inside enclosures, on gloves close to humans, and sometimes in front of large crowds. It is our duty as their caretakers to ensure that they are given every opportunity to choose to engage with humans, their environment, and their enrichment items in ways that provide a positive and holistic life here with us.