In the zoo world, an important concept is something we call animal enrichment. It means providing mental and physical stimulation for our animals – opportunities for them to increase their activity, stimulate their brains, promote positive social interaction, and encourage natural behaviors. At the Saint Louis Zoo, we consider enrichment a high priority for all of our animals, and that includes elephants.

Being Sense-ible

When planning enrichment activities for our elephants, we include ways to stimulate all of their senses:

  • Sight – When you visit our elephants at River's Edge, you may catch them watching you! Consider yourself an enrichment item! We also provide our elephants with plenty of other things to look at, such as mirrors and colored light bulbs.
  • Smell – They may not wear perfume, but our elephants like to smell it! We provide our elephants with interesting things to sniff, including perfumes, spices and vinegar.
  • Sound – What kind of CDs does an elephant like to listen to? Ones with nature sounds, of course!
  • Taste – We don’t give them candy, but our elephants do get special treats. Besides their usual diet (see Elephant Edibles), our elephants love to try new kinds of fruits and vegetables, and to sip flavored waters.
  • Touch – Ever see an elephant stroking something with its trunk? These animals use their super-sensitive trunk-tips to explore objects. Our elephants get to “feel” a variety of things, from bubbles and water (in showers, pools, and a waterfall) to mulch, shredded paper, and wonderfully-textured rubber tires.

We provide our elephants with enrichment items and activities both outdoors, in their habitats, as well as indoors, in the elephant management facility, or “barn.”

Elephant Exhibits: Fun in the Sun

When we built our elephants’ habitats at River's Edge, we made sure these giant animals would have lots (tons!) of enriching opportunities. (To find out more about how we created River’s Edge, check out Building a Home for our Elephants.)

River’s Edge includes three separate but inter-connecting elephant habitats – all large and long to encourage walking. To encourage extra exercise, the terrain has varying slopes. Besides this, we regularly add special ground “coverings,” like mulch and pine shavings – great for promoting elephant “dusting” and play behavior. And the habitats always have enrichment objects like deadfall trees.

After giving themselves a dust bath or tromping around their habitats, the elephants might decide to cool off by going for a swim in one of their two pools. One of the pools is deep enough for an elephant to be completely submerged, and the other pool has a waterfall, perfect for taking a cool shower! Or the elephants might dip their toes in the stream that runs through another of their habitats.

When the weather’s cooler, the elephants might skip the dip in favor of heading to the heated over-hangs, which are found in each habitat. And the habitats also provide wind breaks when the elephants want to avoid the breeze.

When it’s meal time, the habitats provide lots of opportunities for our elephants to practice their natural foraging behaviors. They’re encouraged to search for food in a variety of ways. For instance, we scatter their food, provide hanging browse (like shrubs), and provide “feeder puzzles” (which encourage the elephants to figure out how to get at food items hidden inside an object).

Finally, we know that the best elephant enrichment of all is the opportunity to socialize with other elephants. So we vary which elephants are in which habitats. This allows for the animals to mingle in different ways, strengthening old bonds and building new relationships. These group dynamics act as a catalyst for increased activity and play behavior.

Elephant Barn: Indoor Fun

Just like they do outside, our elephants spend a lot of time indoors socializing, exercising, feeding – in short, having all kinds of fun!

In terms of socializing, we give our elephants plenty of opportunities: their barn has eight stalls that can be connected in various ways to allow different groups of animals to be together.

When it’s time to eat, we provide these giant herbivores the chance to “forage” for their food. For instance, we regularly “hang” food up high by placing it in buckets strung from the ceiling. This stimulates the elephants both mentally (like figuring out how to get at the food by pushing the tire in a certain way) and physically (it’s a great workout for their trunk and neck muscles!). Similarly, we have a watering system that encourages our elephants to exercise their minds and bodies when they take a drink (of plain or flavored water).

And just like outside, our elephants have the chance to get wet indoors. On a regular basis they get a bath in a special “shower stall.” (For more on elephant baths and hygiene, read all about Taking Care of our Elephants.)

Our elephants have a lot of opportunity to exercise, socialize, forage, and practice other natural behaviors, both indoors and outside. But just like people, elephants sometimes need days to just kick back and relax. That’s why we also schedule “rest days,” quiet days when we don’t offer special enrichment activities. Even elephants need a holiday once in a while!