How Are the Animals Paired Up?
Meeting the Needs of Every Species
A few times I recall seeing one adult takin in a separate area from the others. What are some of the reasons that might result in this separation?
Do the tiger and others in that house have mates/ friends that they can play with?
How often are the animals changed & rotated with other zoos/habitats?
–Click Around Chicago
The question of companionship is definitely a core zoo FAQ. Guests see a solitary animal and wonder, naturally, if that individual is lonely without some conspecific company.
But that’s basically a question of biology. Some species are social, gathering in big groups and displaying a lively array of interactions—picture the African wild dogs or meerkat mob at Regenstein African Journey.
But others are essentially solitary. They live alone in the wild, coming together only to breed. These solitary species include most of the big cats at the Kovler Lion House, meaning the Amur tigers aren’t looking for playmates.
“We try to emulate the wild structure as much as we can,” says Vice President of Animal Care Megan Ross, Ph.D. “Lions live in prides in the wild, and it’s important for them to have companions here at the zoo. But tigers are solitary in the wild, and we reflect that in their living conditions here.”
That’s not to say the tigers aren’t engaged. They receive daily enrichment—scents, snacks, logs to scratch—to encourage activity and natural behaviors. But barring a breeding match or the occasional pairing of siblings from the same litter, company can be more stressful than stimulating for many solitary species.
Outgrowing a Group
Even when you do have a stable social group, change is inevitable. Like us, animals grow. They mature. They age, and they eventually die, all natural outcomes that can spur change.
Take the case of the solitary Sichuan takin. That was male Bao Zhen, who was born at the Antelope & Zebra Area in 2007. He grew with the rest of the goat-antelope herd, but as Bao Zhen began to reach maturity, he became increasingly likely to butt heads with dominant male Quan Li.
Realizing the change in the group dynamic, the zoo’s caregivers moved Bao Zhen to an adjacent exhibit. There he could maintain proximity with the rest of the herd as the Sichuan Takin Species Survival Plan® found him a suitable permanent home. (He made the SSP-recommended move to The Wilds in Ohio last year.)
Making Moves (But Not too Many)
Inter-zoo moves like Bao Zhen’s are guided by scientists at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Population Management Center (PMC), which is headquartered at Lincoln Park Zoo. The PMC works with zoos—and species—throughout North America, drafting breeding and transfer plans for roughly 340 species.
A big part of the PMC’s mandate is to assist zoo professionals in making matches to preserve a species’ genetic diversity as well as making sure there are enough new births to keep the population’s size stable. The new arrivals Lincoln Park Zoo welcomed this summer—from Francois’ langur Pierre to the baby white-cheeked gibbon—came about thanks to planning sessions between the PMC and individual Species Survival Plans®.
Often, the best match for breeding requires an animal to move from one zoo to another, a recommendation that isn’t made lightly. “It takes a lot of effort to make these transfers happen,” says PMC Director Sarah Long. “We want to make sure the genetic benefit is worth it for the population as a whole.”
Still, to answer the question above, the average zoo animal is likely to make a move in its lifetime. Part of that is just the nature of life. “If offspring can’t stay with their parents indefinitely, a move is going to happen,” says Long. “Even with species where offspring can stay in the social group, they may be needed as mates and/or social companions elsewhere.”
As Long notes, not every move is about breeding. Many are designed to meet the social needs of animals that do live in groups. Great ape troops, in particular, can require social engineering to balance the animals’ complex personalities.
For example, female gorilla Kowali left Kwan’s group at Regenstein Center for African Apes to move to Knoxville Zoo in July. The impetus behind the move was to provide companionship for Wanto, a male who was living alone. Kowali’s presence jumpstarted a socialization process that has the ultimate goal of Wanto and Kowali living in a natural social group with two other females.
“These moves require a lot of coordination, but they’re made in the best interests of the population,” says Long. “We wouldn’t do them otherwise.”
By James Seidler • Published January 17, 2014 • Originally published in Winter 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine