Sensory enrichment for chimpanzees using essential oils

Environmental Enrichment – Part 3: Sensory

This week’s blog post is all about sensory enrichment for the chimpanzees! This includes things like, perfume or essential oils, spices, musical instruments, and even digital media! Sensory enrichment covers categories like tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), taste, visual and auditory objects. This means we try to stimulate one or more of the five senses.

The sense of touch

For things that simulate the sense of “touch” we offer the residents different materials to manipulate, such as scarves, paper, tissue paper, streamers, paper towels, etc. The residents sometimes love to just carry these materials around in their pelvic pocket throughout the day or add them into their nests. While grooming between chimpanzees and between human caregivers and chimpanzees is in our category of social enrichment, it certainly stimulates the sense of touch as well. This is critical to well-being and is foundational for all mammals. In this video you can see Sue Ellen with a tissue. This also stimulates fine motor movements, which you can see in her hands and lips.

As a side note, fine motor movements between the hand and mouth are tied together. Next time you shoot a basket or thread a needle, what is your mouth doing? Probably a movement in your tongue. The chimpanzees exhibit similar behaviors, evident during grooming. (Waters, G. & Fouts, R.S. (2002). Sympathetic mouth movements accompanying fine motor movements in five captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) with implications toward the evolution of languageNeurological Research, 24, 174-180.)

The sense of smell

To stimulate their sense of smell, we add some sort of essential oil to objects! Chimpanzees have a similar olfactory senses as humans and so they enjoy different smells. It’s common practice at Fauna to bring over whatever is being prepped for lunch so the residents can take a nice long sniff! Every day at Fauna ends with incense.

Chimpanzee smelling potatoes
The aroma of food is great sensory enrichment!
Sensory enrichment for chimpanzees using essential oils
Essential oils stimulate the olfactory senses.

Digital media and books as sensory enrichment

Another favorite among some residents, especially Binky and Sue Ellen, is a little screen time! Binky loves watching nature documentaries, especially about other primates. Sue Ellen has her own iPad and she loves playing the bubble popping game. Books and magazines with lots of pictures are also enjoyed. Sensory enrichment comes in many forms.

Books are great enrichment tools

A little peace and quiet

Although we offer the residents a variety of musical instruments, and some even have been known to play the recorder now and then, chimpanzees are notoriously quiet beings. As caregivers we do our best to keep the volume at a minimum as much as possible. So auditory enrichment is usually left up to the residents to create themselves with an occasional tambourine.

Donate to our sensory enrichment program!

As you can see, sensory enrichment plays a very important role in the daily lives of the residents. Care to donate to our sensory enrichment program? Purchase some tissue paper and incense for all of our residents to enjoy!


Want to start at the beginning of our Enrichment series? See Environmental Enrichment – Part 1: Social Enrichment.

– by Kaeley Sullins, Animal Caregiver