Emily G. Patterson-Kane, Ph.D.
We will be “beyond” environmental enrichment when what we now call enrichment is just plain providing good environments. Already, we are seeing research papers where large group housing of rodents with bedding is considered the standard environment1, but in other institutions barren housing is a staunchly defended norm. And I would argue what is missing in these cases is not justification for enrichment, or the enthusiasm for proving it—but a proper integration of animal welfare with scientific and economic drivers of behavior when it comes to actually creating the environments in which we house animals.
Enrichment is an aspiration message, which must engage with economic and professional realities without surrendering to them. But to simply acknowledge that we need money to make enrichment happen, need to enhance the overall function of the animal in its role—such as a scientific model– is not a distraction; it is a core part of the job of making enrichment mundane, making it just something everyone does. It is a core feature of psychology that if someone is doing a behavior you don’t want, like refusing to allow a form of enrichment, pushing back just places that person at the uncomfortable meeting of two motivations. To change their behavior, you have to identify and manipulate the source of the motivation.
For example, there is a resistance to change, to maintain standardization. It is easy to simply argue against this objection. Standardized housing, we know, must efficiently capture the key features of the typical environment, sufficient to allow the animal to function normally; it must be fully reported in experimental studies and an explicit part of the research model. By contrast, we see quite a lot of housing which seems to have affordability and sanitation as a primary rather than a secondary goal. Report of caging is often incomplete and sometimes
entirely absent. Environments tend to be barren, especially for small animals that are on experiment. And, while these environments are known to cause deficits in physical and psychological systems, in many places they are tolerated.
This is not a problem with standardizing; it is a problem in how standardization is pursued (and the impression being given that it is currently being achieved). Studying subtle effects is difficult without long term, explicit and standardized conditions. And changes in these conditions need to be harmonized; they take extra time and money, and they can affect research results. Denying these realities simply undermines the standing of the enrichment advocate, just as denying the need for enrichment undermines the standing of the researcher. Because it is getting very hard for anyone to deny that housing animals in barren conditions is no longer acceptable morally or scientifically, enrichment is going to be the New Standard.
Reaching this standard will be an inconvenience for some animal users, which should be acknowledged and mitigated, but not—in itself—allowed to be an obstacle to progress. In order to get to a post-enrichment age, we need to separate the objections to enrichment that are rationalization. We need to take on the real objections as part of the enrichment cause. And we need to show that bold steps towards ideal housing will overall produce better results and be less inconvenient— because a housing system that is based on mandated barren minimum will be subject to constant incremental change as guidelines
and regulations change. We need to push for the establishment of authoritative “reach” standards for enrichment that make this goal easier, not a constantly creeping minimum.
In order for those whose focus is budgets, branding and research to truly embrace enrichment—we will need to truly embrace their goals too. We need to really understand how the data might be affected and not assume it will always be positive. We need to develop cost effective options that can be sourced locally. We need to be able to see first how enrichment affects the animal, but not stop there–and also see how it affects the science and the bottom line. And, when this is done, we may finally find that enrichment, which is basically a word for ‘good husbandry that not everyone does’, will finally become
1Wood NI, Carta V, Milde S, Skillings EA, McAllister CJ, et al. 2010 Responses to Environmental Enrichment Differ with Sex and Genotype in a Transgenic Mouse Model of Huntington’s Disease. PLoS ONE 5(2): e9077