Enriching Experience

A bucket of fish frozen into a block of ice. A snake skin hanging in an exhibit without a snake. A five gallon plastic water jug with fish inside. A cardboard box with holes cut into the sides. A jack-o-lantern. What do the items in this seemingly mish-mashed collection have in common? They are all enrichment items for our animals!

Meeting the diverse needs of the varied animals at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is not an easy task. Naturally, great care is taken to provide the highest level of care for our animals’ homes. Special consideration is given to meet each animal’s individual nutritional needs. But, caring for their physical needs is only one piece of the whole puzzle. Just as human parents want to meet all needs of their children physically, emotionally, and intellectually, our animal care staff go to great lengths to ensure that each of our animals grows and develops in all of these areas as well.

Enrichment is a word we often hear used to describe a variety of activities happening in the aquarium, but what does it mean? Enrichment involves providing the right stimuli, learning environment, and opportunities that will allow an animal to thrive. While enjoyment is a factor, enrichment involves more than just seeing that an animal is entertained. For instance, we may use enrichment to help develop problem-solving skills or to help develop a skill that is underutilized.

For our seals, our Mammals team might offer the seals food in a manner that requires them to figure out how to actually get the food. One such enrichment activity involves the seal trying to figure out how to get food out of a floating container. (Don’t worry- they almost always figure it out. And even if they don’t, we make sure that they get plenty to eat.)

Enrichment might also be used as a way to enhance an animal’s environment or change its environmental experience. Some animals find great enjoyment in simply playing with an object that is new to them, developing their natural sense of curiosity.

Enrichment is closely linked to making caring for animals easier for the caregivers and less stressful for the animals. Playing on an animal’s sense of curiosity, a caregiver can introduce an object for an animal to follow. After the animal learns, through positive reinforcement, to follow an object, like a pole with a ball on the end of it, a caregiver can more easily move an animal from one place to another. This learned behavior can be important for shifting animals on and off exhibit for cleaning or feeding opportunities.

The foundational goal of any enrichment activity is to stimulate the animal mentally and encourage natural behaviors, but the benefits are far-reaching for both the animals and the caregivers.

On April 27, 2019, from 9:00am to 5:00pm the Virginia Aquarium will host Animal Enrichment Day. During this event visitors can learn about and will be able to see first-hand how enrichment is used with the animals here. Several animal ambassadors will be available to meet. Come with your own curiosity and questions and enjoy live training sessions, feedings and other interesting activities throughout the Aquarium! This event is included with your Aquarium admission.