Zoo FAQ: Do the Animals Get Bored?
The Science Behind Sound Animal Care
“Someone might come up to the lion yard and say Sahar looks bored,” says Matthew Heintz, Ph.D., the zoo’s welfare monitoring postdoctoral fellow. “Actually, wild lions spend up to 20 hours of the day sleeping. It’s what they do.”
Understanding the natural behavior of animals in the wild is critical to providing appropriate care for those living at zoos. But animal welfare is never a simple matter. Snapshot impressions of how an animal appears to be faring don’t provide the entire picture.
“Good welfare can be challenging to evaluate because there are lots of different things that can affect it,” says Megan Ross, Ph.D., vice president of Animal Care. “That’s why we have keepers, veterinarians, endocrinologists and behaviorists who come at welfare from different angles. It sounds like an easy topic, but it’s very complex.”
Zookeepers are the first line of defense. If they notice a behavioral change that doesn’t seem quite right they call in the zoo’s veterinarians, who make house calls around zoo grounds every day. They also encourage activity by training individuals to participate in their self-care and providing stimulating enrichment appropriate for a given species.
“Scent enrichment makes sense for cats. Puzzle feeders occupy fingers and minds for gorillas, who forage all day,” says Ross. “But putting a big object in with hoofstock can frighten them because they’re used to being prey species. You have to know your animals.”
Heintz, who’s studied wild chimpanzee play behavior in Tanzania, is using ZooMonitor, a new iPad app developed by the zoo, to take behavior monitoring research to the next level. Modeled on programs used at Regenstein Center for African Apes, it lets zoo scientists and caregivers review data collected daily on a variety of species to determine if, say, the way an animal is using an exhibit is new or part of a recurring seasonal pattern.
One recent focus: collecting baseline data on the baby black rhino, King, and his mom, Kapuki. “We’re looking at the frequency of typical mother-calf behaviors as well as how this youngster exhibits play behavior with mom or by himself,” says Heintz. “King has a lot of energy, and there’s been plentiful nursing. Kapuki is doing what she needs to do.”
Heintz and the zoo’s endocrinologists at the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology also study animals’ stress by analyzing hormone levels in fecal samples. This valuable information can help confirm or guide animal care decisions related to observed behavior.
All the baseline data will help link future changes in behavior to health and welfare. One added benefit for Heintz: collecting it certainly isn’t boring.
By Craig Keller • Published February 4, 2014 • Originally published in Winter 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine