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    Time To Thrive: Safety Considerations For Enrichment

    A turkey wearing a hard hat with the words "safety first" printed across.

    Creating enriching experiences for residents can be an enjoyable aspect of care for caregivers. However, safety is paramount! In order to provide the best possible enrichment experience for residents, it’s important to first take into consideration any possible hazards before adding them to their enrichment plan. In this fourth resource of our Time To Thrive! enrichment series, we will look at some of the ways enrichment can go wrong, and steps you can take to prevent this. If you are new to the idea of enrichment, start with our first resource, where we discuss what enrichment is and why it’s important, and work your way back here. Don’t worry, we have kept these resources short and sweet to make developing an enrichment program at your sanctuary easier. Okay, let’s jump in!

    Consider All The Factors
    While some of the possible hazards enrichment can pose are due to size, material, loose pieces, and other physical factors, enrichment can also prove to be a risk if a resident finds the offered enrichment scary, threatening, or even extremely exciting. Care must be taken to first consider the species and the individual and how they might respond. Once you have done that, then you can eliminate any possible physical safety hazards. Follow this up by closely observing the individual in order to ensure you can intervene and remove that object if there are any issues. Later, we will cover some tips on how to present enrichment to decrease the risk of a bad experience for residents.

    Questions To Ask

    When brainstorming possible enrichment ideas, it’s helpful to ask questions about the potential safety of these ideas before implementing them. Here are some questions to ask when you are considering a new enrichment item or activity or reviewing existing ones:

    • Could it be a choking hazard?
    • Could it spin and hit or fall on a resident?
    • Could it contain potentially toxic substances?
    • If it’s a food item, is the amount and type offered a potential health issue (impaction, grain overload, impacted crop, colic)?
    • Could it cause injury by a resident licking or chewing on it?
    • Could it cause irritation or injury by being rubbed against by a resident?
    • Does it have sharp edges?
    • Does the item have the potential to change (create sharp areas), break down into smaller pieces, or harbor bacteria?
    • Is the enrichment such that a resident could break a tooth, nail, or beak when engaging with it?
    • Could any structural enrichment increase the risk of accidental access to spaces other than living spaces (such as a log near a fenceline that inadvertently allows residents to climb over fences, a wallowing area that causes soil erosion, or loosening fence posts)?
    • Does the enrichment pose any risk of drowning?
    • Does the enrichment pose any risk of a resident becoming stuck or getting a limb trapped?
    • Are there any cords that could pose a risk of electrocution or fire?
    • Are there any ropes, strings, or cords that a resident could eat or become caught up in?
    • Is the enrichment compatible with biosecurity? For instance, is the item shared between different resident groupings? Is it able to be thoroughly sanitized? Should it be discarded after use?
    • Is there a risk to residents with mobility issues, visual impairment, or those that are hard of hearing or deaf?
    • Is there a risk of frightening a generally timid resident?
    • Is the enrichment blocking any sources of food, water, or shelter?
    • Is there enough enrichment that it reduces any confrontational issues over a lack of available resources for social groups?
    • Are other members of the care staff aware of the enrichment schedule so there isn’t overlap in enrichment and they can observe the residents in their care?

    Resident Reactions

    When new enrichment is introduced to a resident’s environment, it’s normal and to be expected if a resident pauses and seems uncertain at first. They may approach slowly, with caution. It may take some time for them to warm up to the item/activity. A confident resident may just walk right up to the enrichment item or engage in an enrichment activity with gusto. An indifferent resident may ignore the enrichment altogether or give it a quick once over and lose interest almost immediately. (If they show little interest then it isn’t actually enriching, is it?) While the above examples are all normal responses to enrichment, problems can arise when a resident has a strong fear or confrontational response to the enrichment offered. 

    For this reason, and the other safety considerations listed above, supervision is vital when introducing new enrichment to an individual or group of residents. Taking notes and keeping a record of the enrichment offered and how the resident(s) responds is an important way to help ensure a successful enrichment program. (We will talk about notes and recordkeeping in greater depth later in this series.)

    When observing a resident’s response to enrichment, ask questions like those listed below to help inform your enrichment strategies and ensure safe and successful enrichment opportunities:

    • Does the resident find the proffered cognitive enrichment overly challenging, exhibiting frustration or distress?
    • Does the resident panic and flee upon seeing new enrichment?
    • Are there negative changes in the social, feeding, exploratory, or resting behavior of the resident?
    • Is the enrichment overlapping with potentially stressful events that may affect the resident’s response in a negative way, such as health checks, shearing, moving to different living spaces, the addition of a new resident to an existing social group?
    • Does the resident actively confront the enrichment by charging, stomping, or otherwise showing offensive behaviors related to a sense of threat?
    • Does the resident(s) ignore the enrichment or show little interest?

    Remember, enrichment is only enriching if the resident(s) find it enriching!

    General Tips

    While everyone is an individual, there are ways to generally help limit potential negative experiences residents might have. When adding enrichment into a resident’s routine, first consider their species-specific needs and behaviors, then examine their personal health and behavioral history. Take into account their personality and overall temperament. Follow these general tips to help ensure the enrichment experience is a physically and mentally safe one:

    • Inspect enrichment items for safety hazards before offering them AND after they have been engaged with/manipulated by residents to ensure the item doesn’t present any new hazards. 
    • Remove enrichment items regularly as novelty can wear off fairly quickly.
    • Alternate types of enrichment on a schedule to keep their routine interesting.
    • Ensure there is plenty of the proffered enrichment so everyone in the social grouping is likely to have access.
    • Do not place enrichment items in front of vital resources such as food, water, or shelter. 
    • Offer enrichment gradually, only offering one new enrichment item or activity at a time. 
    • Remove any enrichment that elicits a strong fear response.

    While this list doesn’t cover every possibility of potential safety issues, we hope it does provide you with a set of foundational questions to consider when developing enrichment strategies at your sanctuary. Considering safety factors helps ensure enrichment improves the overall well-being of residents in your care. It’s time to thrive!


    Copy of Safe Enrichment by Amber D Barnes


    Safety Considerations For Enriching Primates | University Of Stirling (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Enrichment Gone Wrong! | The Shape Of Enrichment (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Safety Database  | The Shape Of Enrichment (Non-Compassionate Source)

    The Environmental Enrichment Program Of The 2nd Chance Animal Sanctuary Of Sarasota, Florida | Ron Hines’ Vet Space

    A Veterinary Assessment Of The Risks And Benefits Of Environmental Enrichment | Detroit Zoological Institute (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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