Sonic enrichment at the zoo

Gabriel Miller


This project is a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and the San Diego Zoo to design and build interactive sonic enrichment systems for animals in managed care. Our approach is based on the potential of animal-animal and human-animal relationship as an environmental enrichment for the welfare of zoo-housed animals specifically in terms of animal vocal communication.  Enrichment is a way for caregivers to provide animals with the opportunity to express natural behaviors and reduce stereotypic behaviors. 

Current sonic environments are both impoverished in terms of natural sonic interaction and disrupted by human-generated noise. Existing programs in sonic enrichment lack interactivity and do not respond meaningfully to the animal’s behavior; for example, simple looped recordings of natural environments coming out of loudspeaker systems do not meaningfully respond to animals’ attempts to interact. Existing systems also are not driven by data about the meanings of environmental sounds or vocal behaviors. Our goal is to design and build interactive sonic enrichment systems truly designed to vocally connect individuals within and between species.

Example of possible directions include but are not limited to:

  • Developing an adapted music-mixing platform for a solitary macaw who loves listening to music that has varying musical moods
  • Creating a remote communication system for the Andean cocks-of-the-rock to recreate a natural sense of large community and improve our understanding of their mating behaviors.
  • Designing a device to allow embryo-parents communication in birds from within the egg even when the eggs are located in a remote incubator.
  • Developing a deep-learning based real-time system to monitor and understand panda sonic behaviors
  • Studying and classifying the musical characteristics of Animal Directed Speech in different situations (keepers, visitors, familiar animal, distance from humans on the evolution tree, age of the animal and projected intelligence).