By David Markham
Next time you’re visiting the Ernie Miller Nature Center, don’t be surprised if you see a barn owl bobbing its head to a Shakira song. Or a red tailed hawk intently looking at the colorful illustrations as a park naturalist reads to it from a kids’ storybook. Or a grey tree frog sitting on a bright red ball of the ball-pit variety. Or even a ferret happily romping around its own personal makeshift playground including a parachute and toys.
These are just a few of the more obvious examples of enrichment activities nature center staff provide every day for the center’s 30-plus animals.
“Enrichment is extremely important to the mental and physical well-being of an animal,” explained Park Naturalist Alisa Grunewald. “We want these animals to live as fulfilling of a life as they can. The mental and physical health is important. Imagine being in a room with nothing in there? It would be boring and could affect your physical and mental well-being. We wouldn’t want that, and so we don’t want that for our animals either.”
Animal enrichment involves “items or activities that will help encourage development and create new experiences for an animal,” said Senior Park Naturalist Regina Wasson. “Just like enrichment for people, you create new things to allow them to have some developmental growth and new experiences.”
Giving an example, Grunewald explained “Our American kestrel is a wonderful bird of prey; she is a falcon. Her (behind the scenes) enclosure is a great space, but you don’t want her to sit in this space all day. So, for her physical and mental well-being, we will put her on a swivel attached to a leash and take her outside on a walk. She can get some sun, and that way she has the stimulation of being out in that natural environment. The idea is, we want to give them some things and experiences that really bring out their innate behavior.”
Enrichment activities at the nature center can take many forms.
“Some of the enrichment activities include traveling around the area for educational programming, listening to music, watching videos or movies, reading books, singing to the animals, placing toys in the enclosure, making changes in their homes, new foods, etc.,” Grunewald said. “This is constantly changing as new ideas and research are exchanged at the nature center. Our youngest red-tailed hawk really enjoys looking at our bird calendar and “The Hungry Caterpillar” book.”
Through careful observation of sometimes subtle behaviors, park naturalists can often tell if the animals are engaged through their enrichment activities.
“Animals are able to communicate through various behaviors and will let us know if they are in stress, excited, healthy, calm, etc.,” Grunewald said.
Some enrichment efforts do not involve direct interaction between humans and animals, and can be things like placing new items in the animals’ enclosures, leaving them foods they haven’t had before, or leaving them paper they can shred.
Enrichment activities typically take place during daily care.
“All of the staff at Ernie Miller work hard to enrich our ambassador animals,” Grunewald said. “We try to do these different activities daily or when we have a few extra minutes. Enrichment time can vary as it is dependent on the type we choose.”
There are no set times for public viewing of enrichment activities, but since many of the center’s animals are on display for the public, they could easily catch some of these activities going on or see enrichment materials in the enclosures.
Currently residing at the nature center are: two red-tailed hawks, a barred owl, barn owl, eastern screech owl, an American kestrel, Mexican milk snake, western milk snake, two prairie kingsnakes, great plains rat snake, gopher snake, western rat snake, speckled king snake, two ornate box turtles, two three-toed box turtles, leopard gecko, American toad, two grey tree frogs, two tiger salamanders, two rose-haired tarantulas, peppered roaches, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Vietnamese walking sticks, a domestic rabbit, a domestic ferret, and a slender glass lizard.
Some of these animals reside in the nature center’s exhibit room, in bird habitats just outside the nature center or in the center’s courtyard, and in tanks in the lobby, wildlife viewing area, and a hallway. Other animals, primarily those commonly used for outdoor education programs, have enclosures behind the scenes.
To aid in enrichment, Grunewald recently created a handling and enrichment log for the center’s animals.
“It enables us to see who’s gone out (as part of programs), who’s been handled, and if there is a very blank space, then we know we need to enrich that animal.”
While the nature center works with wildlife rehabilitators to provide homes at the center for animals that cannot be rereleased into the wild, Ernie Miller Nature Center does not do wildlife rehabilitation and cannot take injured, orphaned, or wild animals from the public. Officials also stressed that birds of prey are federally protected and it is against the law to own one. Birds at the center have all been injured or imprinted and are kept for educational purposes under permit.
See story about January through April nature-related programs.