Reptile Enrichment: Stimulating the senses of our scaly friends
Reptiles are arguably some of the most stigmatised and misunderstood creatures in the animal kingdom.
Often thought of as emotionless and unfeeling, they have been widely villainised and persecuted throughout history. The technically incorrect statement that they are ‘cold-blooded’ doesn’t exactly help with this reputation (reptiles are ectothermic; the temperature of their blood depends on the external conditions).
Contrary to popular belief, reptiles are intelligent creatures who can lead complex emotional lives. Crocodiles, for example, perform intricate courtship rituals involving mutual vocalisations, sensuous snout rubbing, and bubble blowing. Croc mums are also fiercely protective of their young, quickly responding to cries of distress and gently transporting their babies in their mouths after hatching. Shingleback lizards have been known to form monogamous pairs, with some couples seen returning to the same mate each breeding season for over 20 years. So romantic!
"Reptiles are capable of problem-solving in ways previously only attributed to birds and mammals."
Recent studies have also shed new light on reptile intelligence, showing that reptiles are capable of problem-solving in ways previously only attributed to birds and mammals.* It’s safe to say, there’s more to reptiles than meets the eye, and providing enrichment for them is just as important as it is for any other animal within our care.
Enrichment often involves some kind of food reward, however, with reptiles, this can be tricky. Many reptiles don’t need to eat every day, and during the winter months they eat even less (or not at all), going into a state called brumation which is similar to hibernation in mammals.
Food often won’t work as a motivator, so we have to think of other ways of keeping our scaly friends stimulated. Rather than food-based enrichment, tactile and scent enrichment is often more effective.
Recently, volunteers from the Happy Paws Happy Hearts program made some awesome sensory climbing boxes for the pythons, which were a big hit. The team filled the boxes with shredded paper and mulch from the chicken coop at the barn to entice the snakes to explore.
Other reptile enrichment includes stinky scavenger hunts using different items from around the sanctuary such as mulch and poo. Our reptiles who live in indoor exhibits also get brought out for regular sunning/exploring sessions and the turtles go turtally wild for worm and fly pupae popsicles in the warmer months.
Regardless of how you feel about reptiles, one thing is for certain, they are amazing animals who absolutely deserve our respect.