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What is Animal Enrichment?

Enrichment provides an animal with opportunties for mental stimulation or physical activity, as well as encourages and complements unique behaviors and adaptations. Enrichment also gives an animal choice, control and variety in their environment, and is an important component of enhancing an animal's overall wellbeing.

Trainer Gretchen sits in ankle-deep water working with a beluga whale.
A white-striped penguin holds a bundle of thin twigs in its beak.

Types of Animal Enrichment

Enrichment is different and varied for every animal. It can simply provide variety in an animal's day or encourage them to reach specific behavioral goals. 

The Animal Care team is constantly creating new, creative and stimulating enrichment for animals to engage with. They use their extensive knowledge of animal anatomy, physiology and natural history, as well as their strong relationships with individuals, to develop tailor-made enrichment programs for aquatic animals of all kinds, from sea stars to stingrays.


Incorporating Positive Reinforcement in Training

After successfully completing a requested behavior in a training session, an animal like a sea lion might receive a tasty fish to encourage that behavior in the future, a method called positive reinforcement. Those positive interactions build connections and a trusting relationship between the animals and the people who care for them. 

Through positive reinforcement, animals also learn and practice behaviors that help them participate in their own health care. By familiarizing the animals with the activities and sensations of eye exams, blood draws and ultrasound scans, these and other procedures can be carried out safely and efficiently, whether it’s for a checkup or urgent care.


Diving into Enrichment at Shedd Aquarium

You can see enrichment in all its forms in habitats across the aquarium, so dive into just some of the many examples of what enrichment might look like for species here at Shedd.

Aurek turns on his side so that a trainer can check his fin.

Beluga Whales

The beluga whales are offered many forms of enrichment throughout the day, but guests can occasionally watch their training sessions in the Abbott Oceanarium. Each session is different, providing every whale with choice to participate in physical and mental activities while also strengthening the relationship between caretaker and animal and ensuring that the belugas can cooperate in their own care. 

Sea otter Luna rests comfortably in a rubber bucket behind the scenes, her long body coiled to fit.

Sea Otters

With their sharp teeth and dexterous paws, the sea otters at Shedd are known for being the toughest on toy enrichment items, keeping the Animal Care team on their toes to find durable solutions. One form of food enrichment offered to the otters is whole crabs, clams and mussels. If their bite can't break through the fortified shells, they have to figure out the best way to break open the crustaceans to get to the tasty meat inside. 

A giant Pacific octopus receives a large puzzle block toy as part of its enrichment.

Giant Pacific Octopus

Giant Pacific octopuses are incredibly intelligent, so aquarists provide Shedd’s resident octopus with enrichment that is mentally stimulating and sometimes challenging to accomplish. One example is a "prey puzzle" — a container that the animal must take apart to get the food inside. Watch the video to see how octopus enrichment encourages foraging behaviors.

Nickel the Green Sea Turtle swims towards lettuce to eat.

Green Sea Turtle

Nickel the green sea turtle’s care team comes up with creative ideas to keep this massive turtle moving throughout her habitat. The team will sink a head of lettuce to the bottom to imitate feeding from seagrass on the ocean floor like her wild sea turtle counterparts. They will also stuff lettuce in pieces of durable fire hose or other innovative feeders at different depths to keep Nickel active and healthy.

Two magellanic penguins waddle with their chests puffed out along the pebbled oceanarium walkway.

Penguins

Rockhopper penguins Wellington, Edward and Annie may have made penguin field trips famous, but walks through the aquarium are a valuable form of enrichment for the entire penguin colony at Shedd! Both the rockhopper and Magellanic penguins, if they choose to participate, will occasionally venture to other areas of the aquarium, visit special events, participate in a Penguin Encounter or join an Animal Spotlight for exercise and variety. In their habitat, the penguins engage with waterfalls that encourage them to preen, which means to smooth out and waterproof their feathers, as well as many other forms of enrichment.

A tiny catfish latches onto a lettuce leaf

Fishes and Amphibians

Fishes and amphibians need enrichment, too! To provide variety, encourage natural behaviors and physical and mental activity, aquarists can feed fishes and amphibians at different times of the day, feed from different areas of the habitat or put food in various items like feeder balls, add currents to the habitat, move or add plants and places to hide and more.


Measuring Animal Wellbeing

As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), animal wellbeing is central to everything we do. We believe that the wellbeing of the animals in our care is both our moral responsibility and foundational to our mission.

We are committed to providing the highest standards of care for the animals at the aquarium and to invest in and take action to promote the wellbeing of animals. This commitment and drive for continuous improvement has been the catalyst to participate in global research efforts to better understand marine mammals, as well as proactively inviting external partners to objectively assess the wellbeing of dolphins and belugas at Shedd.

  • A snapping turtle lifts its huge head out of the water to touch a target
  • A dolphin calf plays with a big basketball.
  • A red-footed tortoise opens its mouth wide to chow down on a mulberry.
  • Green sea turtle Nickel's shell is scrubbed by a long-handled scrubber brush.
  • Sea lion Tanner touches his nose to a target buoy as he engages with a trainer behind the scenes in the Abbott Oceanarium.