How I Created A Successful Enrichment Program

Jenny Jones, BS, RLAT, CLAP
Animal Enrichment Coordinator
Animal Care Supervisor

Not to start us off on a downer, but one of the most important things I’ve learned on my enrichment journey is that the biggest and broadest obstacle to any type of enrichment program is that change is hard. It just is, all the way from the individual level to the institutional level. I often describe it as the “bunny hop” of progress. There will be some hops forwards and backwards but the overall progress will be forward if you are persistent. Having your perspective be focused on the long game will help you stay resilient through the frustrating times. I’ve found it can also be helpful to remember that people’s reactions to new ideas may be heavily influenced by that fear of change. Keeping that in mind will help you to not take those negative reactions personally, and better develop a plan of attack to start changing minds.

When I was a new technician, I approached improving enrichment as a personal undertaking, focusing on the individual rooms and animals under my care. I feel like I’ve seen this approach from many passionate animal lovers that enter the field. Unfortunately, the one-woman crusade approach makes it difficult to tackle all the obstacles that stand in the way of creating an effective enrichment program. Our program was spurred forward by a fellow technician who pushed to create the first version of our Animal Enrichment Committee (AEC.) She understood that it was important to gather like-minded people and organize our individual efforts and ideas into collective action.

The AEC grew to include staff from all the areas in our department. Including a diverse group of staff helped us to both come up with interesting new ideas but also efficiently evaluate their likelihood of success. Ideas could be shaped before they ever left the committee by having a manager who can speak to feasibility of proposed costs and a faculty veterinarian who could help assess potential safety concerns in the group. Having the formal committee helped to establish more buy-in and support from both within our department and the greater research community at our institution as a whole.

Early efforts included improving the documentation and consistency of what we were doing across campus. A preliminary database was created to include types of toys or other enrichment devices used. Although it was sometimes painful (for me) we moved very slowly before making any widespread changes. Since we are an academic institution, we need to clearly communicate any changes to a large and varied audience of researchers. This meant we also needed to anticipate their potential concerns and work to alleviate them. One example is the study we conducted showing that our staff were not missing sick or dead animals during their cageside health checks even with the addition of more nesting material.

As I mentioned before, change is hard, and we received push back from not just research staff but our own animal caretakers as well. We navigated this by including them in discussions about changes, explaining the reasoning behind them, and trying to make every effort not to add additional difficulties to their day to day job. The vast majority of our staff are dedicated to improving the welfare of the animals in our care and once they understood the “why” behind a new policy or enrichment item they would get on board.

I expanded the Animal Enrichment Database to include every specific item we provide. This helped to address issues such as different buildings having only a limited selection of options and differences when people were ordering something that was similar but just different enough to cause potential concerns. I then made a supplemental enrichment ordering form that lives with our standard husbandry order form to make it even easier for supervisors and our procurement team to be sure they are ordering the correct items. These are examples of trying to reduce any potential friction that staff might encounter which can help increase compliance.

One of my favorite projects has been creating different enrichment events that all our staff can participate in (pre-pandemic.) They have proven to be a fun way to help people feel connected to all our species even if they’re working in a rodent only schedule. In the last couple years, we’ve also tied these events into our efforts to mitigate compassion fatigue. The bonus being that the end result is extra enrichment we can use in the program. Activities have included pumpkin carving contests, mural painting contests, present wrapping and easter egg decorating.

An important aspect of any quality enrichment program is that it should always be evolving and growing. I never wanted to hear myself say the dreaded “well, that is how we’ve always done it.” So even with a program as well established as ours we are continually looking for ways to improve our program, evaluate our efforts, and importantly remain connected with our animal care staff. Recently, we officially merged our Animal Enrichment Committee into a new group called the Behavioral Welfare Group. We felt that in the day to day we already combined our efforts in providing quality enrichment and maintaining stable and healthy social groups, so it made sense to officially create one resource.

As difficult as it was to make some of these changes, I am so encouraged by all that we have achieved and will hopefully achieve in the future. I think any new program will find a lot of support in all the available research out there. There is so much clear evidence that we can improve the welfare of the animals in our care AND support the life changing scientific studies our animals are a part of.