If you were to design an enrichment item for a gorilla – something that provides mental stimulation and encourages natural behaviors – what would you create? Maybe a puzzle feeder with a special treat inside? A structure so gorillas can practice climbing? As part of GRACE’s conservation education program, children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo worked together to design enrichment for the gorillas at GRACE as part of a new project aimed at building empathy for gorillas and other animals.

GRACE leads six youth conservation clubs that help kids build leadership skills and take local action for conservation. In a series of visits, GRACE educators and gorilla caregivers met with club members to teach them about gorillas and how the GRACE team cares for gorillas who have lost their families due to poaching.

One of GRACE’s six youth conservation clubs (photo: GRACE)

The curriculum emphasized taking the perspective of gorillas to build empathy. Children learned about the special bond between gorilla mothers and their offspring, including how important it is that gorillas remain in the wild with their families. This provided an opportunity to compare the needs of gorillas and people. For example, baby gorillas and human infants depend on their mothers for milk, protection and care. They learn from their family group, they play, and they discover skills needed in adulthood. As a group, the clubs concluded that, in many ways, gorillas are a lot like us.

GRACE gorilla orphans showing affection (photo: GRACE).

GRACE caregivers then explained that caring for gorilla orphans at GRACE requires providing them with food, a clean living space, health care, social interaction with other gorillas, and mental stimulation. Just like children in school, it is important for gorillas to learn and be challenged. Gorillas at GRACE are given special puzzle feeders or hidden food items to encourage problem solving and new foraging behaviors. The GRACE gorillas also spend time in the forest each day. This natural and expansive habitat is their best form of enrichment as it allows gorillas to explore and learn as they would in the wild.

Gorillas enjoying the forest at GRACE (photo: GRACE)

To practice being gorilla caregivers and scientists, club members then watched videos of gorilla behaviors. Using a simplified behavior chart, or ethogram, the children collected data on how a gorilla spends its day. They observed behaviors such as resting, moving, playing, and eating. These behaviors led to a more in-depth discussion on what types of enrichment items could be offered to the GRACE gorillas.

Ultimately, the children chose food-based enrichment, and worked in groups to design a foraging basket for the gorillas. They presented their designs to the club, and everyone voted on the winning design. They then made sample baskets. Unfortunately, GRACE is still off-limits to visitors due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the region, so the children could not deliver the baskets to the gorillas in person. Instead, the GRACE care team used these models to create baskets at GRACE then hid food items inside for the gorillas. The educators then videoed the gorillas finding and opening their baskets. The club members gathered to watch these videos and were delighted to see the gorillas enjoying the foraging baskets they designed! Everyone laughed when the caregivers explained that after the baskets were emptied, one gorilla even brought them back from the forest, as if asking for another round of food! The baskets will be re-used and re-made as needed by the care team as a fun way to offer the gorillas variety in their foraging.

Watch the conservation club members working on the foraging baskets and the GRACE gorillas enjoying them:

In the last meeting to be held in September 2019, children will discuss the differences between surviving and thriving as they learn the meaning of empathy. Children will discover that the GRACE gorillas are thriving because GRACE provides excellent care for them daily. And their enrichment items added to this care! However, all animals, including domestic animals like goats and guinea pigs, can and should thrive too. Giving domestic animals enrichment items, proper care and nutrition, and a clean environment allows them to grow up healthy and strong. In the end, our goal is for children to expand their view of what it means to care for and respect all living things. By teaching empathy through conservation, GRACE continues to uphold the motto “a future for gorillas, built on community.”

A conservation club member draws a gorilla and human as part of the project evaluation (photo: GRACE)

Members of the GRACE team with Kasiisi project staff and wildlife club members in Uganda (photo: GRACE)

This project was funded by a generous grant from the Columbus Zoo, and done in partnership with the Kasiisi Project in Uganda, which is conducting a similar project with their youth Wildlife Clubs. The Wildlife Clubs will make enrichment items for chimpanzees at Ngamba Island Sanctuary in Uganda. In May 2019, the GRACE team visited The Kasiisi Project to exchange ideas and lessons learned with staff members. Outcomes of the gorilla enrichment program will be evaluated at the end of 2019, and in the near future we aim to expand the program to include building empathy for domestic animals. We want to thank GRACE’s Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group and Selina Niblett for initial ideas about types of enrichment and our Education Advisory Group for guidance with curriculum and evaluations.

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