Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Something's doing at the zoo

I can think of nothing that divides the opinions of animal lovers more than zoos. To some they are horrid spectacles where wild animals are locked in little cement boxes for the public to gawk at. To others they are a way to educate the public about wildlife while adding to our knowledge of each species and contributing meaningfully to conservation efforts. Some view zoo animals as living short boring lives of confinement, while others view zoos as predator, poacher and disease free shelters for species rapidly declining in the wild. Both groups are passionate in their support of animal welfare, and both are partly right about zoos. Zoos for a very long time were, and to some extent and in some places still are, places where animals are kept in very unnatural conditions for the gawking pleasure of humans. Zoological gardens originally cared little about the welfare of the animals, beyond the expense of replacing them. When most modern zoos were opened, animals usually were kept in small hard cages with no natural elements and nothing to do. It is still possible to find many zoos like this, and many cages like this even in the more modernized zoos. But many zoos, including most I have been to in the US, are actively and intentionally reforming themselves, and have been gradually improving for some decades. Rapid improvement is difficult while one has a large group of animals to keep. You can't simply bull-doze the whole place and start anew. Rather you must find what open space you have and build a new tiger habitat, then move the tigers there and rip up their old cages to build a large outdoor space (with winter quarters underneath) for the baboons. When that is done, and the baboons are safely outside, the monkey house can be rebuilt, and so on. In a few decades when all the old cages are gone, you will realize that the tiger habitat you built really isn't big enough for tigers, and you can start the cycle again. So changing from a bad old zoological garden to a new fancy new wildlife conservation and education center takes decades.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting one of the most advanced and impressive zoo I've been to, the Copenhagen Zoo. In overall appearance and plan it reminded me very much of the Bronx Zoo, where I worked for a short time. In fact it was so similar I have no doubt many of the same people were involved in planning the individual habitats in the two zoos. The two are so similar that I could say to my wife, "this looks just like the place in the Bronx Zoo where they have the crocodiles and river turtles," only to turn the corner and find the crocodiles and river turtles in nearly identical enclosures.

Almost all of the enclosures were state of the art, made to look and feel as much as possible like habitat, with places the animals can go to get out of the weather, and out of the view of tourists, or where they lay in the sun if they so choose. They had a large display (in Danish, so I couldn't read any of it) on the bad old way of doing thing, set up so that the viewers actually walk through a series of cold cement cages with giant steel bars where rhinos and hippos used to be kept. But what impressed me most was the attention paid to making sure the animals had something to do. The anteater ate not from a trough, but from a rotten log with numerous holes drilled in it and food stuffed into each hole. This gave it something to do with its improbably long tongue and impressive curved claws. Rather than laying around looking bored, it spent its time ripping open logs and licking food out from inside them.

Inside the impressive new elephant house the elephant also has to work for its food. I spent half an hour watching an elephant attempting to extract its food from a large barrel hung 5 meters off the ground. The barrel hangs from a rope, such that the elephant can barely reach it with its trunk. By repeatedly whacking the barrel with the tip of its trunk it can make it swing enough that eventually some of the food inside spills out on the ground. The elephant then eats this and goes back to whacking the barrel. By the time the meal was over, the elephant looked honestly tired, a rare and precious thing for a zoo animal.

The bears spent enough time digging in their enclosures (with enough magpies and starlings closely following them) that I can only assume there was food buried somewhere in there, with the location changing from day to day. Over and over throughout the zoo we saw animals doing something.

The term in the zoo community for this is behavioral enrichment, and it turns out to be incredibly important not only for the animal's mental state, but for their overall health, their longevity and the satisfaction and education of the viewing public. Crowds these days don't just want to see an elephant standing there, they want the elephant to be happy, and they want it to be doing something. In the Copenhagen Zoo, the animals are doing something, and usually it is something similar to an actual behavior observed from the wild. Wild elephants really do whack and grab overhead food with their trunks. Anteaters really do tear open rotten logs. Behavioral enrichment takes a lot more thought, and a lot more work, than dumping food in a trough, but it makes for a wonderful zoo. (A recent episode of the NPR show Radio Lab focuses on Zoos, and talks a lot about the importance of behavioral enrichment.)

We spent about eight hours walking around the Copenhagen Zoo, and saw most but not all of it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who loves animals, whether or not you love zoos. I took about 500 pictures that day, 60 of the better ones are linked to below.

Copenhagen Zoo

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