Animal enrichment at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

As made clear to the millions of viewers who tuned in for the premiere episode of National Geographic’s series "DogTown," Best Friends Animal Sanctuary does more than just house and feed the dogs we care for. Best Friends believes that every dog deserves the same quality of life – the mental and physical stimulation – that we would want to give our own pets. That means plenty of walks, training, play, and love.

Enriching animals' lives

Enriching the animals’ lives is, in fact, of paramount concern across the sanctuary, and not just when it comes to dogs, but to all the animals – the cats, horses, bunnies, parrots, potbellied pigs, goats, sheep, and even the wildlife at the sanctuary’s rehabilitation center. Best Friends provides all its animals with the experiences and tools that enrich their lives for the duration of their stay at the sanctuary, be it a short-term stay or one that lasts the remainder of their lives.

Cat enrichment

Enrichment starts with the architecture of the sanctuary’s care centers. At Kittyville, the cats live in buildings that have been specially designed to provide its residents with ample opportunities to go where they like. There are cubbies to hide in, platforms to roost on, and rafters to climb. Each of the buildings is outfitted with doors leading out to screened enclosures, where cats can spend their time napping in the sun or observing the wildlife around them. Of course, the cats have more than enough toys to plays with.

Perhaps the greatest enhancement to all the feline lives is the one-on-one time that Kittyville’s staff and volunteers spend with the cats. "We boost their quality of life by the amount of care and attention we can give them," says Kittyville manager Bobbie Foster. "We’re their family."

Equine enrichment

At Horse Haven, the first and foremost enriching element we provide the 35 horses – as well as the five donkeys, seven goats, two mules, and two sheep – is space. Thankfully, with 33,000 acres of land, the sanctuary has plenty to spare, allowing the farm animals the room to roam, run, buck, and play to their hearts’ content. The horses, donkeys, and mules also receive plenty of training, such as learning how to maneuver around and over obstacles. "The sort of training we do encourages thought, choice, and playfulness, which all lead to good mental stimulation," says Jen Reid, manager of Horse Haven.

Rabbit enrichment

Over at the Bunny House, manager Debby Widolf and her crew provide the rabbits with plenty of balls to push and toss around, sandboxes in which to dig, tunnels to scurry through and hide in, and blocks of wood that are safe and pleasurable for them to chew on. Most important, however, the Bunny House staff pair and group rabbits (depending on the individual rabbit’s choice), making sure that each and every bunny has a compatible companion.

Bird enrichment

Working on the assertion that companion parrots are wild animals who have been forced into captivity, the staff and volunteers at the Parrot Garden take great pains to make sure the 101 incredibly intelligent birds under their care are continually engaging their senses, and their minds. To that end, when the weather is good, parrots spend their days outside in their cages, where they can feel the sun and the breeze on their wings and commune with the wild animals that flock to the garden, including songbirds, ravens, wild turkeys, and deer.

"We want them to be able to retrieve that biological memory of what it’s like to be in the wild," says Parrot Garden manager Suzanne Cordrey. The staff and volunteers also make shred-able toys to give to the birds, as well as engage the birds in foraging activities that mimic what they would be doing in the wild. With all of these enrichment techniques, what the birds gain is a new perspective on people.

"We give the birds a positive example of what it’s like to be with humans," says Rick Van Tuyl, a caregiver at the Parrot Garden. "A lot of birds who come here haven’t had that experience."

Certainly, the same can be said across the great animal spectrum that Best Friends is.

Read about dog enrichment ideas.

Photo by Gary Kalpakoff