Environmental enrichment and focus on animal welfare are now common practice for many pets. Some companies have started producing toys specifically designed for foraging. It’s even becoming standard in zoological facilities to provide such opportunities for many of the animals. Some taxa have been largely left out. Where have reptiles, fish, and invertebrates been in these conversations? This is not to say that absolutely nobody has been working on this. I’ve seen interesting things being done, such as Komodo dragons playing tug of war with food hung high in enclosures, or hissing cockroaches being presented with scent trails to follow with a feast at the end. Progress is certainly being made. The next step, as I see it, is to get more examples out there. Let’s make it mainstream!
Although the focus of this article is snake feeding, nearly all these ideas can be modified for just about any animal.
What are the benefits of puzzle feeding for reptiles?
We can increase species-typical behavior. Instead of wiggling prey in front of the snake for a few seconds before it strikes, we can increase the duration of hunting to better mimic the behaviors of their wild relatives. With that comes a greater range in behavioral diversity that can then be shaped operantly into cued behaviors. We also see more relaxed, deliberate movement around food, which can make feeding and training the animal easier and less dangerous. Obesity is a huge problem in reptile keeping and, unsurprisingly, the exercise gained from foraging can help address that. Their brains will have to work to problem-solve and behave around novel stimuli and challenges. As their keepers, we also benefit by getting to see a broader behavioral repertoire in our animals.
Before we start throwing new challenges and puzzles at our animals, it is important to consider a few things. Snakes are unlikely to chew on objects like some mammals or birds. However, they are skilled at swallowing things, especially if they smell like food (edible or not). It is necessary to ensure that puzzles are too large to swallow and sturdy enough not to break into ingestible pieces. We should also be conscious not to allow excessive amounts of substrate to be swallowed when stuck to the food item. This is a concern whether caretakers are puzzle-feeding or not, but I have learned that puzzle-feeding can occasionally exacerbate the problem. One solution is to place feeders in areas of the enclosure with less or no substrate, like a flat rock. In some cases, you can also feed outside the cage. A table placed on the same level as the door opening creates an easy exit that also allows for quick retreat to safety inside the enclosure if the animal becomes overstimulated. Make sure any holes in feeders are large enough for the thickest part of their body to move through with some room to spare, including when they have a food bump!
Caretakers should ask themselves a few questions. How does the individual snake behave around food currently? Is this an animal that blasts out of its enclosure as soon as it is opened? Will it only eat if the food is left in overnight and nobody is in sight? What modifications can we make to the environment to accommodate the animal’s established learning history?
Approximations towards foraging behavior
Approximations towards a behavior are important for learning. If I have a snake who routinely exhibits stress-like behaviors associated with novel stimuli, I may first rest the food somewhere in the enclosure (away from substrate to prevent substrate ingestion), perhaps on top of a hide or ledge. If I already have been placing food in the enclosure, as opposed to delivering it with tongs, I’d likely start changing the place I put it each feeding. This can be a few inches away from the animal or clear on the other side from where the snake currently is. It just depends on the individual’s needs.
The following is a list of approximations one can take to help a snake become an expert forager:
- Place the meal on a plastic lid or shallow dish, like this:
- Change the size/color/opacity/location of the dish.
- Change the height at which it’s placed.
- Then progress to a deeper and deeper dish (I’ve used clean pill bottles). Here’s an example of an opaque plastic dish at a low level.
- Next, place a lid halfway on top of the container, then cover it more and more.
- Poke holes too small for them to reach through but large enough they can smell it through the side.
- Add multiple cups but only have food in one.
- Scent one with the food but place the food in another cup.
- Introduce a tunnel starting with food closer to the edge, then move it farther and farther back.
- Add a turn or a dead end in the tunnel.
- Place the puzzles behind branches or through plants to create obstacles.
Here’s a fairly advanced puzzle where the snake has to move through multiple areas, and can see but not reach the food:
Move at the learner’s pace. Determine when it’s time to move on based on success or lack thereof, and the speed and efficiency with which the success is reached. If the animal won’t eat while being watched, feel free to leave and come back, although I wouldn’t leave prey items in there for too long due to risk of it going bad—this is a good indicator it’s time to take a step back in approximations.
If the snake interacts with the puzzle for an extended period but doesn’t end up accessing or consuming the meal, this is also a good time to take a step back to evaluate why this happened, and lower criteria. Sometimes the answer is to present the same puzzle again. Keep in mind that your learner may be able to skip some steps. A snake that very quickly solves the puzzle is ready to move on. However, don’t be afraid to occasionally offer a simpler puzzle for variety.
We have only scratched the surface of the opportunities to challenge the animals in our care and see how far they can go. How far can you go? What changes do you see? What modifications have you made for your individual learner? Share and show! Great places to do this include the Reptelligence Facebook page as well as our group Reptile Enrichment and Training (RET). You can also tag us on Instagram @reptileintelligence.
Peter has been training and managing exotic animals with positive reinforcement-based, least intrusive methods for 15+ years, with a wide variety of taxa including psittacines, corvids, galliformes, snakes, chelonians, invertebrates, domestic dogs, cats and hoofstock. They are also the co-founder of Animal Ventures in Established Science located near Seattle, Washington. AVES is focused on the use of applied behavior analysis, data-keeping, and improving physical mechanics and skills in animal training to best set learners up to succeed. You can contact Peter via Facebook or Instagram @takingwingconsulting or email at firstname.lastname@example.org