How Should Humans Treat Animals?

September 27, 2013

Chimpanzees gathered together in exhibit

Written By

Steve Ross, Ph.D.

Director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

The principles of natural selection make clear the fact that animals have adapted to particular environments. We’ve all heard how giraffes evolved long necks to reach the highest branches or how zebras evolved monochromatic stripes to confuse predators.

Long necks help giraffes adapt to life on the plains, but evolved behaviors also helped the species thrive.

But these principles apply equally to behavior, as well. Animals have evolved patterns of behavior to suit the social and physical environments in which they have evolved for tens of thousands of years. While taking a “fish out of water” would have serious physiological consequences, the behaviors they’ve developed to thrive underwater wouldn’t do much good on dry ground either.

It’s in this context that we have consider the care and treatment of animals outside the wild. Even animals that are relatively domesticated have evolved in very specific ways to behaviorally adapt to their environments. The more we can do to understand those formative environments and provide for animals’ behavioral needs, the more likely we are to provide conditions that are conducive to their well-being. This is a key principle that should guide the way we treat animals.

Understanding a species’ natural history is a cornerstone to modern animal care in places like accredited zoos, but scientific research continues to remind us of the importance of paying attention to behavioral needs. In a recent paper, scientists from Lincoln Park Zoo describe the importance of providing ultraviolet (UV) light for bird species that are often housed indoors without natural, full-spectrum illumination.

Jambu fruit doves are among the zoo species that may require ultraviolet light to thrive.

Because humans don’t see UV light, it’s easy to overlook the importance of this lighting in terms of food selection and even sex identification for these birds. Seeing the world through the eyes of the animals we care for is necessary to provide the best environments to suit their needs.

Think about that the next time you see a lone chimpanzee dressed in clothing in a television commercial. Are these conditions in which this species evolved? Does the care and housing of this animal meet the behavioral needs of this complex, intelligent species?

The discomfort you’ve experienced viewing these situations is likely a gut reaction to the fact that the animal is “out of place.” That gut reaction is absolutely right. Chimpanzees thrive when given complex and dynamic physical environments in which they can climb, build nests, and interact with other chimpanzees.

A complex species, chimpanzees thrive best in settings that allow them to express their full range of social behaviors.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s Project ChimpCARE works to ensure that chimpanzees across the country have these opportunities. Ultimately, once we think of animals through the lens of the environments in which they evolved, we are well on our way to providing the care they deserve.