There's a lot more to caring for zoo animals than throwing some food and water into their enclosures a few times a day.
Enrichment is important, too, keeping the animals' minds active by encouraging them to act more like they would in the wild and less like in captivity.
And zookeepers at the Milwaukee County Zoo are set to explain, and - better yet - show this to visitors on Saturday at Animal Enrichment Day.
Guests are welcome to step into zookeepers' shoes as they learn what goes into keeping animals' minds engaged and healthy.
Enrichment activities are geared toward enhancing the animals' environments in five categories: environmental, foods/feeding, manipulative, sensory, and social/behavioral, said Erin Dowgwillo, elephant manager.
The enrichment causes zoo animals to act as they would in their own natural habitat because such behaviors indicate that the animals are well-adjusted and content, rather than bored and under-stimulated.
The feeding component of enrichment will be on display on Saturday at the elephant enclosure.
The way the animals obtain their food is an important part of that because, as Dowgwillo pointed out, food is not just set out in a pile for them in the wild.
Zookeepers make the animals work for it a bit more, and visitors will get to step right into the elephant enclosure to enrich the elephants' food-hunting experience on Saturday.
Sixth-graders Maddie Leukam and Alex Schwabe, and second-grader Wendy Schwabe got the chance to preview what the public will be able to do this weekend.
The zoo's elephants, Brittany and Ruth, were led out of the enclosure, and the kids were led into the enclosure by zookeeper Katie Gut. Gut led the girls in setting up the area for the elephants. They scattered hay all around the enclosure, threw apples into the pond, and hid Cheerios, parsley, cinnamon, and hay inside barrels. Then, they left the exhibit, stood back, and watched.
When Ruth and Brittany were called back into their habitat, they had to work for their meal. They walked all around the enclosure to eat the scattered hay and engaged their minds by searching for their hidden treats.
The elephants seemed to enjoy the barrels the most, reaching their trunks in through the holes to eat the deliciously flavored treats. Gut laughed when she told the kids that Ruth and Brittany are sometimes not all that excited to search the water for their apples.
“Sometimes they're precious and don't want to get their little toes wet,” she said.
Elephants are among the most intelligent animals at the zoo, so their enrichment activities are scheduled multiple times a day.
But Dowgwillo said that all the animals at the zoo, even the snakes and fish, are put through enrichment activities, and guests will be able to experience them with many of the animals on Saturday, including grizzly bears, snow leopards and Humboldt penguins.
Although guests won't be able to enter all the enclosures, as with the elephants, Dowgwillo said the zoo staff is planning an interactive portion to most of the enrichment activities.
Another way to enrich the animals' minds and to build relationships with the keepers is through training. Guests will also be able to see this on Saturday and throughout the summer.
The zookeepers train the elephants on important things like lifting their feet, spreading their ears and lying down. The keepers need the elephants to be able to do these things and to trust them so they can take care of them by cleaning their feet, giving them medications and washing them.
“We work on the keeper and animal relationship, especially with animals this large, as well as our dangerous ones like the big cats. We need them to be able to cooperate with us so we can take care of them,' Dowgwillo said.
The animals are also trained in “cute” crowd-pleasers like using their trunks to wave and even to paint. Those paintings are then sold, and proceeds go to promote conservation activities.
So how are such big animals trained? Dowgwillo laughed that it's basically the same as training any other intelligent animal, including humans.
“The same type of training I use with my child at home, I use with the elephants!” she said.
Since elephants are given the choice whether to participate in training, sometimes they have to be persuaded. Methods include positive reinforcement and even time-outs.
Dowgwillo said that when the elephants don't cooperate during training sessions, the keepers will walk away and ignore them until they decide to participate. “That almost always works!”
Saturday's event will highlight the importance of enrichment for everyone, by including stations throughout the zoo to show kids some of those skills. In one station, kids will get the opportunity to practice sensory enrichment by guessing the scents used to stimulate the big cats' senses. At another one, guests can pretend to be orangutans by foraging through shredded paper for a treat.
After a day of enrichment, visitors will be able to take some of those lessons home for their own pets. Otto Environmental will be on hand to sell enrichment toys for pets and to take donations for enrichment tools to be used by the animals at the zoo.
Animal Enrichment Day will take place at the Milwaukee County Zoo on Saturday, June 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Enrichment activities are free with regular zoo admission.
Amy Schwabe is a Franklin-based freelance writer and mom of two girls.