Peek Into The Pack Blog

The Importance of Enrichment for Captive Wild Animals

The importance of enrichment for captive wild animals like wolves and wolfdogs

Article by Kendra Kain-Woods

Kendra is our Grant Coordinator and Copy Editor, as well as an Animal Care Specialist. She is an animal behavior enthusiast, greatly enjoying the impactful relationships possible through training as a means of communication and building trust. Through her love of writing, Kendra hopes to further support the wild rescues of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.

April 17, 2020

As an organization committed to embracing our operating philosophy of “The Animals Come First,” the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Team recognizes the vital role enrichment plays in the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our animal rescues. Indeed, to adhere to our mission of “Sanctuary,” the team fastidiously focuses on providing each of our rescues with species-specific nutrition; comfortable, engaging, and safe habitats; medical support and care; compatible animal companionship, when applicable for the species; in addition to enrichment activities.

Because we pride ourselves on pursuing excellence in the realm of animal care, many years of arduous strides made by the team, our supporters, and the Board of Directors has yielded innumerable enhancements to our protocols, regulations, and the Animal Care Department, over all. However, there’s always room for improvement, and the Animal Care Team has its eyes set on our Enrichment Program.

Brienne Howl-o-Ween enrichment

The dictionary definition of “enrichment” reads: “the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something.” Within the context of the sanctuary, the “something” refers to our rescues’ daily experiences as they engage with their environment, different stimuli, and their neighbors—fellow rescues and humans alike.

In the wild, or more accurately, the natural environments our rescues would have been born into if not bred into captivity, our rescued species would be utilizing a plethora of innate and learned behaviors to ensure survival and procreation. Behaviors such as foraging, hunting, playing, and mating rituals all support the effectiveness of an animal achieving both aims. Fervidly guided by the drive to live as an individual as well as a species, wild animals rely on strong instinctual actions and reactions, they require intelligence that is independent of the intellect found in domesticated animals, and as such wild animals persistently engage with varying stimuli to survive.

Our rescues, while they are not domesticated, they exist within a “domestic bubble” of sorts where they are not required to as intensely rely upon the aforementioned natural behaviors to survive. Instead, wild animals in captivity turn their attention to the human caregivers who they subsequently associate as a resource for food, fresh water, and sometimes entertainment. Therefore, to keep the minds of our rescues sharp, to prevent boredom, irritation, depression, and consequential behavioral disorders, enrichment is essential.

Forest bonding with a bone

On a weekly basis, caregivers provide various enrichment to the animals meant to arouse species-specific responses and behaviors, which in turn helps the Animal Care Team to ensure the overall health and happiness of our rescues.

On Thursdays, for example, ungulate leg bones, sourced from deer, elk, and bison, are distributed to the animals. Not only do the bones allow our rescues to exhibit the natural chewing and gnawing behaviors associated with canids, but this enrichment aids with dental health, mental stimulation to prevent boredom, and bone is high in calcium and phosphorus, which is nutritionally beneficial. According to Dr. Ian Billinghurst, author of “Give Your Dog a Bone,” the role calcium plays goes far beyond bone mineralization: “Calcium is essential for neuromuscular, cardiovascular, immune and endocrine function. It’s vital for blood clotting. Calcium forms the skeletal structure or cytoskeleton within each cell. And every cell in the body depends on calcium to support enzyme functions, bodily signaling and to maintain cell membrane stability.”

Caregivers also take select rescues out for leashed walks, which allows for exploration outside of marked territory, engagement with different sights and scents, and it is an overall burst of mental stimulation that is beneficial for a healthy brain and mind-state. Of course, enrichment walks are not possible to provide to all of our rescues. As our residents are wild animals and not similar to our domestic pet dogs in the way of wishing to please and obey humans, walking our rescues is inherently risky. It requires specialized training and experience before a caregiver is permitted to participate.

Kooyong and her son Glacier

Furthermore, always adhering to our animal care philosophy of “The Animals Come First,” socialization is never forced on any individual at any time, including our socialites. If a rescue wishes to engage and go out for a walk, the caregivers will oblige. Similarly, if the answer is a resounding, “No,” then that wish is respected, and the unnecessary stress of leashing the animal to take them out of their habitat for a walk meant to be enriching is avoided.

Ultimately, to provide high-quality, species-appropriate, and individualized enrichment requires an intimate understanding of the individuals being cared for at the sanctuary as well as knowledge of the natural instincts, health needs, and desires of our wild canid species. Animal care is an art in and of itself, and it requires balance and compassion without the human element creating undue interference.

The reality is that captive wild animals have been robbed of their natural lives. In the case of our residents, their histories reflect varying levels of confinement and human proximity to be all they have known. Despite this, the inherent wildness, the instinctual drives and needs still exist for each of them. Respecting that fact, as caregivers, we carry the obligation and responsibility to ensure the lives of our rescues are as enriched as possible within the necessary compounds of a fenced wild life.

Always striving to ameliorate and progress, throughout 2020 and beyond, the Animal Care Team intends to focus on advancing our Enrichment Program by:

  1. Incorporating more operant conditioning training meant to acclimate our animals to potentially stressful stimuli, such as veterinary care procedures. Doing so will not only help prevent stress and assure the safety of the animal and humans involved, but the training procedures are very mentally stimulating and based primarily upon positive-reinforcement techniques, which encourage trust-building and interspecies communication.
  2. Installing and utilizing additional environmental elements meant to engage the mind and instigate natural behaviors, such as foraging. For example, food scatters throughout a habitat will encourage animals to sniff and seek out the tasty treats.
  3. Developing tailored enrichment plans for each rescue to best suit his or her species-specific needs and personal likes and preferences. After all, each rescue residing here is a unique individual with an observable personality, likes and dislikes, and quirks and tics. Consequently, one-size does not fit all, and what will best enrich the life of one may not do so for another. It is important, therefore, to develop personalized enrichment plans as part of the overall Enrichment Program.

While most of the enrichment supplied to our rescues cannot directly involve the public and our supporters, the Animal Care Department does host four quarterly enrichment events for folks to enjoy, and the first is just beyond the mud of April!

Beric excited for his Spring Basket

Our annual Spring Basket Enrichment Event is scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 7th! As a celebration of spring, and to provide a fun and beneficial enrichment activity, our rescues will be given a basket with specially prepared treats, including frozen mice, hardboiled eggs, no-stuff-stuffed toys, and more!

Please join the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Team at 9:30 AM as we live stream the Spring Basket Enrichment Event on our Facebook account. Watch as rescues investigate their baskets and chomp into treats! As always with our live streams, we encourage participants to ask questions that we will do our best to answer either during the event or afterwards.

Want to help support this event? Please consider donating a “Spring Basket Enrichment” to a rescue of your choice! Each basket, including all of the goodies, costs $35. Please note that all enrichment donations go directly towards completing the quarterly enrichment events and to providing the rescues with high-quality, species-specific enrichment throughout the year.

As a special bonus, anyone who donates a basket will receive a surprise gift in their inbox by the end of May!

As always, all donations directly support our rescues by helping to cover food, enrichment, medical, and habitat maintenance and upgrade expenses.

Happy spring, dear Howling Supporters!

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  1. Bubble

    I really wish I was a wolf sanctuary worker, it’s been on my Bucket list 4 years, I love seeing the progress of your beautiful lot, the spiritual feelin I get when I see them, is astonishing, I’m so grateful for finding this site, THANK YOU xx

  2. Kendra Kain-Woods

    Hi Bubble!

    Thank you so much for supporting Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary by engaging with our website and reading the Peek into the Pack posts! I’m happy to read that you have been enjoying the site and getting to know our rescues. For folks wishing to work at a sanctuary, we do accept volunteers annually. Feel free to check out the details by following this link: Maybe it’s something you can consider down the road? 🙂 Have a beautiful day!


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