In a shadowy corner of Willow Hecht’s chicken coop, attached to a low branch, hangs a tiny swing. Despite the ninety degree July weather, a stringy Christmas tree lays lifeless at the other edge of the coop, some hens hiding underneath. For the Colchester resident’s next project, she is searching for a xylophone.
Out of context, the combination—swing, Christmas tree, and xylophone—sounds a little odd. But with a Master’s degree in Animal Welfare and about ten years experience working in animal enrichment, Hecht has science to back her up.
According to Hecht, animal enrichment is used primarily to help animals in captivity, like zoos, shelters, or sanctuaries. The goal is to increase physical activity, stimulate cognitive abilities, and encourage species-typical behavior.
“As time goes on, animals get bored with the same thing. They’re not meant to live in captivity,” said Hecht. “When it’s novel, it’s exciting and when they’ve had it for a while, it’s boring. You have to constantly be on top of it.”
Most of the Colchester resident’s expertise is with big cats, having worked in big cat sanctuaries in Florida and Peru. “Normally you would pick a behavior you want to elicit from the enrichment. Or a behavior you want to stop,” she said.
Stereotypic behaviors, like when a tiger paces back and forth, or when elephants swing their trunks, mean that there is something wrong in the animal’s environment, she said. “Maybe the cats want to patrol and they can’t, or they’re hungry and they can’t hunt,” Hecht explained. “We don’t really know the root cause of pacing [with big cats], we just know that it’s associated with poorer welfare. So your first question would be, what can I give them to do that would cut down on that behavior?”
This kind of behavior is only seen in animals in captivity. For big cats, pacing often happens when the animals have nothing to do. In the wild, they would spend time looking for prey, stalking, chasing, catching, and consuming.
“You’ve distilled that entire day of activity into five minutes of eating,” said Hecht. “So even something as simple as putting the food in a tree, or feeding it a different time of day can increase enrichment. It takes more time, they’re using all those muscles, they’re using that cognitive ability, and then they get to bring down the prey at the end and eat like they normally would.”
As far as animal enrichment efforts with her chickens goes, Hecht said the question is, does a xylophone actually benefit the chickens?
“It’s not for my own entertainment,” she said, laughing, although she does think the idea of musical chickens is cute. Rather, her goal is to see if the animals are stimulated at all by the xylophone.
“Are the colors interesting? Are the sounds interesting to them? I have no idea what chicken hearing is like so I don’t know what it sounds like to them. If you were to do a real enrichment experiment, you would see if [the instrument] provides any benefit to them, if they come back to it again and again, or are totally ignoring it,” said Hecht. “People think chickens are dumb, not very smart. But they’re really curious.”
A large misconception that Hecht sees in the field of animal enrichment is that it’s an unnecessary cost. But often, Hecht uses recycled materials in her enrichment efforts, both in her own home and at work. Recently, she took a class where she learned how to use recycled fire hoses to make woven animal enrichment toys.
According to Hecht, the movement towards animal enrichment and reexamining welfare science began in the 1980’s on dairy farms. with preference testing. Dairy farmers saw that with unhappy animals, they were more prone to get sick. “If the animals are unhealthy, they’re getting sick more. If they’re depressed, their immune system goes down, they’re not producing as much milk, they’re dying and you can’t get their meat,” said Hecht. “There has to be a balance to how we can easily care for them, have good meat, eggs, and milk, etc, how we can have them healthy at a zoo, but also how we can provide the best life for them that we can.”
Hecht is still on the look-out for a xylophone. For animal enrichment services, Hecht can be reached at her website http://willowhecht.com/.