Abstract: Recent research shows that using different types of enrichment has little to no impact on how zoo visitors perceive the animals or the enclosure in general. The primary objective of the current research was to examine if viewing naturalistic-looking environmental enrichment (NEE) and unnaturalistic-looking environmental enrichment (UEE) has an effect on visitor perceptions of exhibit naturalness, animal welfare, and conservation, while controlling for two factors that can influence visitor perspective: animal visibility and behavior. Study 1 examined the color of enrichment: the NEE was colored to resemble a rock and the UEE was fluorescent pink. Four conditions were recorded: Naturalistic/No Animal, Naturalistic/Animal, Unnaturalistic/No Animal, and Unnaturalistic/Animal. One video was shown to 306 randomly selected visitors who then took a survey including questions on animal welfare, exhibit naturalness, and supporting conservation organizations. Naturalistic/No Animal was perceived by visitors to be the most natural environment and the best of the exhibits for an animal to live in. Study 2 examined different types of NEE and UEE. Eight photos (four with an animal and four without) showing one out of four enrichment items (naturalistic rock, wood wool bedding, traffic cone, cardboard box) were shown to 618 randomly selected visitors who then took a survey similar to study 1. Visitors rated the photos with the NEE consistently higher for questions regarding the naturalness of the exhibit, good animal welfare, and the livability of the environment. Visitors were also asked to rank the four enrichment items from best to worst, and the NEEs were ranked significantly higher than the UEEs. While there are still many unanswered questions regarding visitor perceptions of environmental enrichment in zoos, we hope that focusing on one variant such as color and examining different types of NEE and UEE can help guide future studies on this subject.
Photo credit: Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo