Environmental Enrichment for Reptiles
For years, it has been standard practice to house reptiles in a minimalistic enclosure, with the thought being that the reptiles simply didn’t care. “Give a reptile a heat gradient, a light source and a place to hide” was the mantra in reptile husbandry. Keep it simple, right? Fortunately, this old-school train of thought is changing.
Reptiles that can normally live for two or more decades under natural conditions often languish in captivity and die at an early age. This is because the diet, ambient temperature, relative humidity and lighting (wavelengths and photoperiods) provided to captive animals often do not parallel what the animal experiences in the wild. This lack of natural environmental essentials is sufficient to induce stress and ultimately weaken an animal’s natural immunity to disease.
In relatively recent times, these basic needs for a healthy life have risen to the forefront, and “environmental enrichment” is now a priority in captive environments. Environmental enrichment, which includes both appropriate physical husbandry management and psychological stimulation, provides the foundation for captive reptiles to display natural behaviours and exist in a (hopefully) stress-free situation. Included is the obvious necessity to provide natural terraria as well as mental stimulation, and an excellent way to provide the latter is to encourage natural behaviours.
Providing physical and mental enrichment has become standard practice at most professional facilities, and doing so should also be part of the private reptile keeper’s repertoire. Allowing captive animals, the opportunity to make choices stimulates them mentally. No longer need they sit idle in one spot, waiting for something to happen. Instead, they should be given the opportunity to occasionally make things happen.
For instance, by hiding food items in various areas within a reptile’s enclosure—inside hide boxes, behind partitions and décor, beneath substrate, high up in branches, etc.—you can encourage foraging behaviour. Giving the animal the ability to make an active effort to find the food will provide it with enrichment.
These behaviours obviously cannot take place in simple, box-type units such as the basic sweater box or shelf units commonly used when keeping reptiles. Although these units are efficient in regards to regular cleaning, maintenance and ease of access to the animals inside, they are environmentally and psychologically limiting.