Pickle Enrichment at the NC Zoo

polar bear asleep on hay cuddling a plastic pickle
Photos courtesy of NC Zoo

The North Carolina Zoo is the largest zoo in the world by land mass, with over 2,500 acres. Located in Randolph County near Asheboro, the Zoo focuses on naturalistic animal habitats, and it is the world’s largest natural habitat Zoo. This means all of the animals have large and diverse habitats.

Dr. Cathy Mingee, Ph.D works as the Zoo’s Associate Curator of Behavioral Management. She oversees the training and enrichment program for the entire zoo. But, what exactly is enrichment? We spoke with Dr. Mingee about the Zoo’s enrichment program. 

“Enrichment focuses on the mental health and overall wellbeing of the animals,” Dr. Mingee explained.

In the simplest terms, enrichment can be seen as “toys” for the animals to stimulate them and for them to interact with. However, for the Zoo it’s much more than that. While every facility has a slightly different theory on enrichment, the Zoo shifted to enrichment that is focused on species specific behavioral goals. This means they use enrichment to encourage an animal’s natural behaviors. 

“The goal of providing these items to the animals is not just general stimulation, but rather to be goal-based and encourage the animal’s natural behaviors,” said Mingee. 

Zookeepers ask, “What would this animal be doing in the wild, and how can these enrichment items encourage that natural behavior?” By taking a look at the natural history of the animal and how they should be spending their time, enrichment can be used to stimulate those activities. 

cougar in woods standing over top of large plastic pickle

Here are some examples of enrichment:

  • Giraffes have an 18-inch tongue. In the wild, they use their tongues to strip leaves off plants. The Zoo team focuses on enrichment encouraging giraffes to manipulate their tongues. They create “busy boards” with holes so that giraffes have to weave their tongues through the holes to get their food items.
polar bear standing on hind legs reaches into rocks to pull out large plastic pickle
  • For primates at the Zoo, such as chimps and gorillas, 75% of their day in the wild would be spent foraging for food. So zookeepers can’t just put their food out for them. The primates may sleep too much and the keepers want to ensure they are properly stimulated. So the teams create new ways for them to forage by hiding food items inside objects for the primates to manipulate.
elephant reaches for pickle barrel with trunk

Mt. Olive Pickle Company is proud to be a supporter of the North Carolina Zoo and their enrichment program. For more than five years. Mt. Olive Pickle Co. has provided enrichment items to the animals such as large plastic pickles and empty pickle barrels. 

Elephants at the Zoo use the pickle barrels as hay feeders. Zookeepers cut holes of different sizes, shapes, and patterns so that the elephants have to use their trunks to manipulate them to get their food out. 

Polar bears at the zoo enjoy both the large pickles and the pickle barrels as enrichment toys. Polar bears in the wild investigate and stalk their prey. They do this with the pickles and barrels as well. They pounce on them and crush them as they would crush their prey in the wild.

The purpose of enrichment is for the overall well-being and welfare of the animals. It keeps them stimulated and mentally healthy. All of the animals at the Zoo are being enriched, even the reptiles, fish and bugs!

The NC Zoo Society, the fundraising organization for the Zoo, runs an Amazon Wish List so that people can buy items requested for enrichment purposes. These items include anything from denning spaces for reptiles, balls, hay nets, bones, aquatic plants, things for parrots to rip up, etc.