Emotional Enrichment


At the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary, we have been practicing various methods of enriching the lives of our resident felines for a number of years. Some of the methods we utilize are conventional and are used more and more by responsible and progressive institutions in the animal care field. Others are rather unique to our facility. We have been searching for a manner of distinguishing these various techniques. We have determined that the methods should be classed under two distinct categories.

Behavioral Enrichment

The most common enrichment category currently utilized is Behavioral Enrichment. This method of enrichment is defined by the AZA Behavioral Advisory Group as: “Environmental enrichment is a process for improving or enhancing zoo animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitant’s behavioral biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing the behavioral choice available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing their welfare. As the term implies, enrichment typically involves the identification and subsequent addition to the zoo environment of a specific stimulus or characteristic that the occupant(s) needs but which was not previously present.”

In other words, behavioral enrichment primarily is concerned with physical objects and structures that seem to make life a bit more interesting for the species. We practice this method in many ways. We build very large habitats with shade and terrain changes. We build ramps and high perches for the climbing cats such as cougars, leopards, bobcats, lynx, and jaguars. We build perches for the lions. We build perches and pools with running water for the tigers and jaguars, as well as other cats. We give large and small balls to the cats. We give boat buoys and large plastic “pickles” to the larger cats. We give the cats pumpkins to play with in the fall. We give cats ice blocks embedded with food objects to play with in the summer.

Emotional Enrichment

However, we also feel that exotic felines, as well as other wild animals, benefit substantially from having an emotional state of well-being. We give a great deal of attention to this subject. We call it Emotional Enrichment.

Emotional enrichment is practiced in a variety of ways. One of the frequent mistakes that is made is to categorize a species in general terms vis-à-vis its personality and emotional characteristics. Animals are as individual as humans. Sure, there are some generalizations that can be made about a specific species, but there are many more distinctions from one individual to another within that species. So, we work with each individual according to its personality and emotional needs. In general, we have our staff and volunteers treat each cat with the respect and dignity that would be accorded another human. Care is taken not to agitate, irritate, or unduly excite any cat. No demands are placed upon it, other than the necessary movement into and out of its separated area to be locked down for feeding and cleaning of the habitat. Volunteers and staff sit outside the habitats of various cats and give them companionship and company. When the keepers are working in the cat’s area, they take the time to softly talk to the cat and reassure the cat before moving on, thereby having protected interaction that is beneficial to the cat without risk to the keeper. Tours are conducted in such a manner that they do not excite or upset the routine of the cats. Cats are never required or asked to approach or change their position for the benefit of a tour or individual. Respect is the guideword, and all cats are to be treated with respect at all times.

We never use words such as “order” or “command.” We choose words such as “condition” and “positive reinforcement.” In other words, in every way possible we try to make the cats’ experience with humans one of security, comfort, and support, giving them the understanding that their feelings are being considered in all activities. Our experience is that the cats respond very positively to this conditioning.

Most of the cats in our facility were either intentionally or unintentionally mistreated or abused. They come to us with an antagonistic attitude towards humans. We have found that the great majority of them have changed that attitude as they have come to appreciate our feelings and conduct towards them. Their lives have definitely been improved in obvious behavioral changes that have taken place. Their stress level is minimized. You will rarely, if ever, see a cat at our facility pace, bare its fangs, or charge the fence towards any human. You will almost never see any defensive actions towards humans.

I physically interact with a large number of our large cats. Some of them have never before had direct contact with a human. Most of the cats that have had direct contact previously considered it adversarial, as training methods of domination/ control were apparently utilized. I find that most of our cats respond surprisingly well to my method of utilizing only affection, trust, and respect in direct interaction. I simply sit and become a companion to many of the larger cats, and they often fall asleep with me standing next to them softly talking to them and giving them reassurance and security. They obviously enjoy and want positive emotional interaction. Even the most solitary of cats in nature, such as leopards, cougars, and tigers are among the most affectionate of our cats with me. This again varies from individual to individual. Some simply want me to stand and talk to them. Others want me to sit beside them or in close proximity. In some cases, an individual cat would rather I play with it utilizing some of their objects such as rolling a ball back and forth, holding one of their enrichment items or tossing it for them, or simply holding a dry twig for it to take in its mouth and break pieces off bit by bit (this is a favorite game for most of the cats, actually).

The point is that we find that emotional enrichment not only heightens the behavioral enrichment and acts as an important adjunct to it, but the two activities in concert substantially improve the emotional and physical lives of the individuals involved. Enrichment items that would otherwise not be given much attention are used much more when they are a source of play and interaction with a human, and the cats seem to derive much more pleasure from the activity. Also, our experience is that the whole attitude of our cats is much more positive and peaceful as a result of our emotional enrichment program.

In Conclusion

This program does not necessitate unprotected contact interaction to be a successful program. Many of the elements of our program could be utilized and improve an animal’s life without the need for direct human contact. Indeed, we have several cats that derive a great deal of benefit from our program without having any direct interaction. Again, it is all an individual determination on our part. I don’t interact with an individual unless I feel it would substantially benefit that individual’s quality of life, and that I can safely interact without danger to the animal or myself. We feel that emotional enrichment would be a vital and helpful addition to any behavioral enrichment program and would substantially benefit the lives of the affected animals.

About Louis Dorfman

He has worked with many species of wild animals for over 60 years, both in protected and unprotected contact. At IEAS he rehabilitates exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused, and/or confiscated and in most cases changes the reactions of the cats to humans from one of fear and hate to an attitude that the humans are there for security and support for the resident cats. Over the years, he has worked with over 150 exotic cats at the sanctuary alone.