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Needs of Captive Animals

Lucy the Elephant

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Photo: 'Give a Hand', by gilad, used with generous permission of Gilad Benari.

What Captive Animals Need

     When you visit a zoo, please give some thought to the needs of the animals you see.     

     The information below can make you more informed - and hopefully, you too will become a
     'friend of captive animals'.

     Wild animals forced to live captive lives have very complex needs. Food, water,
     and protection from the elements are only the start. Even with those three
     basic needs taken care of, a captive animal can still be driven mad from
     stress and loneliness.

     Researchers who study animals in their free, native habitats know that many animal species
     live in highly-developed social groups. These social animals need each other's company, and
     suffer emotionally when forced to live alone. Social animals,
     such as primates and wolves, are sometimes housed in
     isolation in many privately-owned Ontario zoos, while some
     normally solitary animals are kept in groups. An animal that
     would naturally live in a pack, herd, or other social group     
     appears to suffer emotional distress when forced to live
     alone. Every effort should be made to avoid this.

     Just as important, a naturally solitary animal should not be
     forced to share a cage with another animal.

  For some species, there are provisions that zoo keepers can make to ease
  the stresses of captive life.

     Animal Groupings - Animals should be kept in numbers that meet their social and
     behavioural needs. For example, herd animals should be kept in herds and family animals
     should be kept in family groups. Solitary animals should be allowed to live alone. If a species
     would typically live in a family or pack grouping of several animals, then even a pair living
     together can be inadequate. Though a pair would be better in most cases than a solitary
     animal, a more dominant animal may unduly harass its lone cage mate when it does not
     have a larger, more natural animal grouping to act as a social buffer.

     Enrichment - means interesting activities that relieve boredom and stress. This is
     essential as signs of mental distress are often observed in confined animals that do not
     have enough variety and activity in their day. The zoo keeper can provide 'enrichment'
     through enclosure structures, furnishings and play-objects that encourage natural
     activities. Different objects that the animals can use as toys can be placed in the
     enclosure, and should be changed from time to time, to provide an element of surprise
     and variety. Animal-management practices, such as how food is presented, can also provide

By providing play-objects (toys) and offering food in interesting ways they help the animals cope with the stress of captivity. These links show how enrichment is provided at two large zoos:

              The Toronto Zoo: http://torontozoo.ca/meet_animals/enrichment/index.htm
                The Honolulu Zoo: http://www.honoluluzoo.org/enrichment_activities.htm

Even smaller, privately-owned zoos can use enrichment techniques!

     Without enrichment captive animals frequently experience a stress response similar to
     mental illness, which can cause animals to behave abnormally: for example, adopting     
     repetitive, obsessive motions. These behaviours are called 'stereotypies' and indicate that
     an animal is in distress. 'Stereotypies' are obsessive, repetitive movements that have no
     natural purpose. Pacing, rocking, bar-biting, and self mutilation through excessive
     chewing, licking, self-biting or feather plucking are examples of 'stereotypies'.

     Stress, frustration, and boredom are believed to be major causes of this disturbed
     behaviour. These behaviours are signs that the animal is in distress. An animal that normally      spends its day digging for food needs to be provided with a similar activity in captivity.      
     For example, food can be 'hidden' in ways that this type of animal would have to find     
     through digging. This type of animal should not be housed on a cement or wire mesh floor,
     but on wood chips or other material that allows it to engage in its natural digging activity.


  Many animals in captivity have nothing to do!

     They are deprived of their natural activities like hunting, foraging, pecking, digging
     or climbing; and are not given replacement activities. This lack of activity can result
     in stress and depression, which appear to be as emotionally painful for animals as    
     humans. For example: at one facility, beavers currently live in a cement-lined pool,
     deprived of opportunities to seek out food or engage in dam building - activities that would
     comprise a good portion of each day in the wild. Wouldn't it be better animal management
     (and more compassionate) to provide these beavers with wood to allow them to engage in
     natural activities?

     As Dr Georgia Mason from University of Oxford speaking at the BA Festival of Science,
     stated: "Animals kept in captivity exhibit stereotypic behaviour that is fundamentally
     similar to that seen in human conditions of autism and schizophrenia..."

  We need to ask ourselves: Is it appropriate to drive animals to emotional
  states similar to mental illness for nothing more than an hour or two of
  human entertainment?


     Appropriate Enclosure Size - Sufficient space to allow for normal movement including
     running, swimming or flying at natural speeds -
     both horizontally and vertically -as is natural for
     the animal.

     Substrates - (the 'flooring' material beneath
     the animal's feet.) Natural materials that are
     comfortable and allow natural behaviours, such
     as digging or pecking, should be used. Wire mesh
     and concrete are easy to clean, but
     uncomfortable for the animal, and should be

Shelter and Privacy - Structures, natural
     features (shrubs, trees, logs) and other items should provide comfortable shelter from
     all weather conditions. These features should also allow the animal to escape from public
     view and, at times, from their cage mates. The inability to find privacy when needed can
     lead to chronic stress for the animal.

     Proper environmental conditions - Temperature, humidity, ventilation, lighting and
     cleanliness appropriate to the type of animal. For instance: nocturnal animals should
     not be displayed in daylight-type lighting. Most animals in the wild would seek out both
     sunshine and shade at different times. This should be easy for us to understand, as we
     humans also choose to enjoy the warm sun at one time, but then seek a cool shade at
     another. A proper animal enclosure would allow the animal to choose sun, shade or shelter
     as it wishes.

     Nutritious food and sanitary water- This includes a varied diet, in sufficient quantity,
     and presented in a way that is natural for the specific animal species. A prepared
     'chow' may provide the basic nutritional needs, but should be supplemented with natural
     foods, such as fruits, vegetables or meat, as is appropriate for the animal. Many species
     have complex (and expensive) nutritional needs that make them unsuitable for
     housing by small zoo owners or private collectors.

Responsible choices should be made as to which animal species can be housed and provided for properly. Unfortunately, some small zoo owners and collectors lack the nutritional knowledge and/or finances to feed all animal species adequately. For example: It is common practice for carnivores in smaller zoos to be fed a diet consisting mainly of "spent hens" (egg-laying chickens that can no longer lay enough eggs and so are disposed of). While this kind of diet will keep a carnivore alive, and is cheap for the zoo owner, it is nutritionally deficient and does not provide enough variety.


  How the food is presented is also important. Food should be presented in a way that
     does not encourage aggression among cage-mates as they react to the stimulus of
     the food being offered. If more than one animal shares a cage, then food needs to be
     given in such a way as to minimize, 'feeding stress' or aggression between the cage mates
     as they compete for the food. If possible, aggressive cage mates should be fed in different      areas of the enclosure (this assumes the enclosure is big enough to allow for sufficient
     distance between the animals,) to reduce 'feeding stress'.


  It is essential to make sure that every animal gets an
  appropriate ration of food.

It is true that in the wild, a more aggressive or dominant pack member may eat a larger portion of food. Flash Art: StampsBySassawjs. See more Sassawj at www.deviantart.com

However, in the wild, the more submissive pack mate is also free to roam and forage and may still be able to acquire more food through stealth. Opportunities to forage do not exist in most small zoos. If food is only presented once or twice a day, and each animal cannot be sure he or she will get an appropriate ration, then stress and aggression are inevitable. Stress and aggression caused by improper feeding methods add to the misery of a captive life that is poorly-managed. The fact that a small-zoo owner cannot afford to purchase appropriate food for a particular species should not serve as an excuse to provide an inadequate diet.

  It is reasonable to expect that responsible zoo owners will keep only those
  animals that they can afford to feed and house properly.


     Veterinary Care - Proper care from a Veterinarian with knowledge about the various
     species housed at the facility is essential. It is a significant challenge for a Veterinarian
     who usually treats farm animals and pets - no matter how knowledgeable and caring that
     doctor may be - to understand the needs of several extremely different species. The
     Veterinarian providing care will need to be willing to consult with experts to seek the
     needed information. It is the responsibility of zoo owners to house only those
     animal species that they can provide with proper veterinary care. For instance, a
     privately owned zoo may not have access to a primate or 'big cat' specialist. This problem
     demonstrates that housing a widevariety of species in a smaller facility without the
     financial resources of a large, publicly-funded zoo can lead to unnecessary hardship for
     some of the animals.

     Proper Record keeping and Licensing- These contribute to accountability on the part
     of the zoo keeper, and provide protection to the animals. If proper records must be
     kept, then a sick or injured animal cannot 'just disappear'. Surely it is reasonable to expect
     a zoo owner to demonstrate that veterinary care is provided to sick animals when needed.


 Humane Zoo Management Involves Even More Considerations

     Some Animal Species are more difficult to house adequately than others. For
     example: some animals are designed to move through many square kilometres of their
     home range each day. Life in a cage can never give these types of animals what a free
     life could, or come close enough to allow them a relatively meaningful existence. If a
     particular species cannot be housed in a smaller facility in a humane way, then why
     not forgo the keeping of that type of animal for display?

If a handful of specific animal species are not displayed at a zoo, this does not mean that families will stop coming. In fact, as people learn more about the needs of animals, many families may come to appreciate that the facility they visit has made humane and responsible choices.

     As we learn more about animals, many well-meaning zoo keepers are questioning what
     types of animals can be housed in the zoo environment. We visitors to zoos should also
     question what species can be housed adequately without undue hardship to the animal.


  Visitors to zoos can help animals by:

  • only visiting zoos that house animals properly,
  • avoiding any zoos that boast a wide selection of different animals, but does not have sufficient space or financial resources to provide properly for them,
  • speaking to zoo-owners that are not housing animals adequately and politely asking for improvements to be made.


Importance of Appropriate Animal Groupings:

     Attempting to keep a wide variety of animal types often means the smaller zoo has only
     one or two of a species that would normally live in a family group, pack, or herd. Or,
     sometimes the animal enclosures are too small and poorly furnished in order for the zoo to
     display a variety of animals in a limited space. Wouldn't it be far better to keep a limited
     number of species, and have enough space, money and expertise to provide a high
     quality of life for these animals? After all, they live captive lives to provide income and
     entertainment. Surely we owe them more than mere survival in return.

     The need for space affects specific animal species in different ways. Kangaroos, for
     instance, would normally range over several kilometres of territory each day through
     bounding hops, and are not designed to move easily in closed areas. Several acres per
     kangaroo would be needed to provide an adequate life for an adult kangaroo - a
     provision that is impossible for most privately owned zoos to provide. Kangaroos are social
     animals and should not be housed alone, and the amount of space needed for several
     kangaroos would be significant. It is highly unlikely that any small facility can provide a
     reasonable quality of life for kangaroos.

  There are no enclosure furnishings or pen designs that can adequately
   substitute the natural environment for this type of animal.

Let's  be honest... We will still live happy lives if we never see every animal type up close. No child will grow up deprived because he or she did not get to see an actual tiger or kangaroo.

     Legislation is urgently needed to ensure that captive animals are provided with
     acceptable standards of care. Legislation to protect zoo and other captive wildlife
     should guarantee more than what is merely needed to sustain life. Legislation
     should also guarantee a reasonable measure of physical, mental, and emotional
     well-being to captive animals. Failure to provide for these needs leads to an     
     unacceptable degree of suffering for these feeling, vulnerable creatures.

Passing laws to regulate zoos and wildlife exhibits is not harmful to the zoo industry. On the contrary, proper legislation would allow zoo keepers to benefit from improved research and study about the needs of the animals that provide income for them.

All industries change and develop throughout time, why not zoos?
At one time restaurants were not regulated or inspected. Rules and guidelines have     improved the restaurant industry - not harmed it.

     The current lack of legislation in Ontario (Canada) has led to some deplorable
     situations at many zoos across this province. No responsible zoo owner need fear this
     legislation, as it has been demonstrated in other regions that these standards are
     achievable. The purpose of this legislation is to help animals - not to hurt businesses! The
     research for this legislation already exists, so there is no need to spend time and money on
     'reinventing the wheel.'


  Conclusion:  It is an enormous task to properly provide for
   captive, wild animals with their complex and varied needs.

     Caring adequately for several species may be difficult for a privately-owned facility without      access to public funding. An owner of a private zoo or animal collection must make some
     careful and well-researched decisions in order to provide for animals in a humane and
     responsible way.

     The responsible zoo owner needs to make very careful choices about:

  • which species, and
  • how many different species can be adequately cared for on the property that is available.

     It is very expensive to care properly for wild captive animals. How much money is
     available to the zoo owner must be taken into consideration when choosing which
     animal species will be housed at the zoo.


     We should admire private zoo owners who make the responsible choice to
     house only those types of animals that they have space, money and
     expertise to provide for properly.

Wouldn't it be far more interesting to see an appropriate grouping of animals interacting together, rather than one or two lonely animals in a barren pen? Animals living in appropriate groupings and with sufficient space and enclosure design would be able to engage in play and natural activities with their fellow cage mates. Such groups could live in large enclosures with natural grasses, bushes and trees, as well as constructed furnishings (platforms and climbers) that mimic their natural world. Visitors watching these animals would see the animals natural behaviour, which is surely more interesting than observing a bored animal sleeping or a distressed animal pacing.


     We are part of the problem if we spend our money at
     facilities that do not provide adequate environments for
     their animals.

Let's all try to learn more - to do better - to help captive animals.


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