Nutrition enrichment can cover a number of different enrichment types with some of the options already listed under tactile enrichment such as boomer balls or cardboard boxes, as well as also falling under cognitive enrichment with the use of scatter feeding or hiding food encouraging the tiger to figure out how to get the food. Food is commonly used as animals need it to survive and will interact with the enrichment. Essentially, the idea is to prolong the feeding times, which can be done by splitting feeding into sessions or by making consumption harder.
Food enrichment – making it difficult
Tigers are often lazy in captivity as they don’t have to work for their food. While this may seem like a great life it does mean that the tigers are not able to perform a full range of foraging and hunting behaviours. This is one of the reasons can get fat and lack proper muscle mass.
One of the many things that can be done to encourage captive tigers to move and exercise is to have a comprehensive feeding enrichment programme in place. There are a number of ways to prolong feeding time. For instance, the food can be placed around the enclosure, up high on platforms or hidden inside or below other enclosure furnishings. Chaining the meat to hang from a tree or hiding the meat inside hanging wicker balls encourages hunting behaviours with tigers having to shred and pull to get their food. One particularly successful option is to use a feeding pole.
What is a feeding pole?
A feeding pole is a commonly used enrichment technique to encourage predatory behaviour. A feeding pole is a straight post or tree with added rope for grip, and at the top is a pulley or a hook where food is attached. Tigers are encouraged to run up this pole to grab the food. The pulley system means it's not released instantly so the tiger has to work a bit to get the food loose. It also encourages a short burst of energy expenditure similar to that seen when a tiger accelerates to catch prey .
But it's not natural...
Many might comment that it is not common for tigers to climb trees in the wild, they have been known to do so . However, we don't actually know the full repertoire of wild tiger behaviour. Instead, feeding poles provide a novel way of finding some treats. Minimal training of the tigers is necessary. Tigers are gradually introduced to the pole with the food placed at higher and higher points along the pole until the tiger climbs the entire way , thus working out their entire body.
These feeding poles have been proven to dramatically improve physical fitness (though careful consideration needs to be given to age and sex of the tiger when determining the height of both pole and food placement – if it’s too high the tiger won’t bother!). They've also been shown to be hugely beneficial in building muscles and strengthening bones, with tigers that used feeding poles showing an internal structure more similar to their wild counterparts as well as slowing early onset arthritis, which can occur as young as six years old in a captive tiger .
Some zoos are hesitant to use such poles as they fear injuries from landing or falling badly. However, studies have shown that this is not a major cause for concern though occasionally some bruising or loss of a claw sheath has been observed .
In humans, increased exercise improves emotional well-being as well as physical. While this has not been studied in captive tigers, the possibility of a similar outcome cannot be ignored.
1). Law, G. and Kitchener, A.C. (2019). Twenty years of the tiger feeding pole: review and recommendations. International Zoo Yearbook. 54(3), DOI:10.1111/izy.12249
2). Schaller, G.B. (1967). The deer and the tiger. Chicago, IL. Chicago University Press.