Are zoo animals happy? There's a simple empathy test we can apply

Even the best-managed zoos fail to address a captive animal's basic need for freedom

Published April 16, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Jean-Christophe Verhaegen)
(Getty/Jean-Christophe Verhaegen)

Excerpted from "The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age" by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce ( Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

The plight of animals in entertainment has gained unprecedented public attention over the past several years, and much of the consciousness-raising has occurred by way of a particular orca whale named Tilikum, known by his nickname, Tilly. Tilly was captured near Iceland in November 1983. When he was only two years old, he was torn away from his family and his ocean home. After a number of years of being transferred from one aquarium to another, Tilly was finally acquired by SeaWorld San Diego, and became one of the star attractions and moneymakers for the theme park. But the years of captivity and maltreatment took a toll on Tilly, and he started behaving erratically. He eventually killed one of his trainers, in front of a horrified audience. The details of Tilly’s tragic life and fateful end were beautifully captured in a documentary called "Blackfish" (2013). By weaving together ethological details about the cognitive, emotional, and social lives of orcas in the wild with a catalog of the abuses and deprivations experienced by Tilly, the film leaves the viewer in no doubt that SeaWorld is a living hell for these sensitive and intelligent creatures, who go crazy and must be pumped up with psychoactive drugs like Valium to control their behavior.

SeaWorld, for its part, has seen ticket sales plummet. In March 2016, SeaWorld announced that it will end its orca breeding program, won’t obtain new orcas from other sources, will begin replacing its theatrical orca shows with shows that exhibit the whales’ natural behaviors, and will have no orcas at all in any new parks around the world. Further, SeaWorld has pledged to invest millions of dollars for the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals. (And in a nod to animal welfare more broadly, it also pledged to use cage-free eggs, gestation-crate-free pork, and sustainably sourced fishes at SeaWorld venues, and offer more vegetarian and vegan options.) This is a very good beginning, and we can look forward to the day when venues like SeaWorld, including terrestrial zoos, morph into sanctuaries in which the animals’ lives are put first and foremost. It is vitally important to keep working toward these goals. As the longtime animal advocate Gretchen Wyler once noted, “Cruelty can’t stand the spotlight.”

So how do animal well-being and freedom fare within the various entertainment venues that center on animals? Before we get to our main focus—zoos—consider a few instances of animals being used for entertainment.

Last Chain on Billie: Bridging the Empathy Gap

Billie, as she became known, was a majestic Asian elephant who was captured and shipped to America as a baby. She was taught to perform circus tricks such as standing on a small tub and balancing on one foot. Audiences clapped and marveled at her skills, but they didn’t know about Billie’s miserable behind-the-scenes life as she was hauled across the country and kept chained for hours on end when she wasn’t performing. Billie suffered enormous physical and psychological trauma but she finally got a lucky break when she was rescued and sent to a sanctuary for performing elephants in Tennessee. While she would never again be chained or beaten, her abuse had taken its toll, and Billie refused to interact with the other elephants or to allow anyone to remove the chain around her leg. For five years, Billie wouldn’t forget her past, and the chain remained. Finally, Billie allowed caregivers to remove it with a bolt cutter, from the other side of a fence. As Carol Bradley writes in her wonderful book "Last Chain on Billie," “It was almost as if Billie realized what they were attempting to do. The expression on her face softened and she stopped swinging at the fence. She lifted her foot again, this time higher than before, pushed up against the bars of the fence and rotated her ankle first one way and then another.” Billie didn’t give any indication that she understood the significance of being freed from the chain, and “headed out to the sand pile to wake [her elephant friend] Frieda from her nap.” When the chain finally fell from her leg, she “picked it up with her trunk, then dropped it and walked away.” Billie, Bradley writes, “had better things to do.”

Circuses involve humiliation, punitive training techniques, and poor living conditions for captive animals. Rodeos and dog- and cockfighting make spectacles of animals through overt violence. Dog- and horse racing are exploitative and often involve physical injury to the animals. Even venues in which humans can interact with “wild” animals and where the animals are not subjected to overt abuse can be harmful. Opportunities to swim with dolphins or pet wild tiger cubs involve a loss of freedom for the animals and a disruption of their lives, for the purpose of momentary human delight.

Billie’s story is hardly unique, and it captures just what happens to numerous entertainment animals whose hearts and spirits are broken as they are abused “in the name of entertainment.” A very useful thought experiment for bridging the empathy gap is to ask, “Would I do it to my dog?” This question brings home not only what entertainment animals endure, but also how our companion animals, who aren’t any more sentient than the animals used in entertainment, nevertheless enjoy a higher status. Most people would never imagine letting a dog be treated in such disrespectful and abusive ways.

The Case of Zooed Animals

Let’s now turn our attention to animals displayed at zoos and aquariums, where humans are simply observers, where an attempt is made to provide animals with suitable, even naturalistic, habitat, and where veterinary care and nutritious food are provided to all residents. Are animals living under these conditions happy and content, as zoo brochures would have us believe? The simple answer is no, they are not. Some zoos, particularly the thousands of roadside attractions, are shockingly mismanaged, and animals suffer from neglect, poor care, small, barren cages, and no attention to their species-specific or individual needs. But there are many zoos that seek to maintain the highest standards of care for animals, often through the application of animal welfare science. These are the focus of our attention. It is easy to see the problems for animals at the worst places; it is more interesting to take a look at the better institutions and what they are doing to improve the lives and well-being of animals. We can see how welfare science can make an enormous difference in the lives of animals. We can also see why good welfare is not and can never be good enough and how the animals on display suffer from huge losses of freedom.

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums there are more than 10,000 zoos around the world. In the United States, as of September 2015, there were 230 AZA-accredited zoos and an estimated 2,400 “animal exhibitors” licensed by the USDA. (This number does not include individuals who own one or more exotic animals as pets.) AZA accreditation means that an institution has met certain standards for animal care and management, paying attention, for instance, to proper housing, nutrition, and social groupings. More than ten thousand different species are held in zoos around the world.

In zoos, welfarism and welfare science are hard at work. As with animal welfare on factory farms and in laboratories, science casts its sheen over our interactions with animals in zoos. A special issue of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) devoted to “issues in zoo animal management” suggests that welfare problems in zoos are issues of management, not ethics, and that good, scientifically informed management strategies can resolve welfare concerns.  As in other realms, the welfarist paradigm controls the dialogue about animals. It focuses public and scientific attention on what we can do better for animals within the current paradigm. But it never pushes the questioning beyond the doors of the animals’ cages. Zoo workers justify the keeping of animals in captivity by appealing to the welfarist paradigm, saying that animals in captivity are safe and comfortable and better off, in some respects, than they would be in the wild. Yet as ethicist Koen Margodt puts it, zoos are essentially “welfare arks” in which animals are collected, purportedly to save them from extinction, but where human interests are put before the interests of individual animals.

Indeed, although zoos are open to the public, and sometimes even funded by local initiatives and taxes, what goes on behind the scenes is hidden from the public, unless and until problems become so severe that the bad news spills out, which it often does. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, for instance, was recently the subject of an investigation into mismanagement and animal welfare problems related to the zoo’s Cheetah Conservation Station. The zoo decided to double the number of animals in its CCS exhibits, but without increasing the amount of space allocated to the animals or preparing in advance where and how the animals would be housed. The results, not surprisingly, were tragic. Because there was no exhibit space ready for them, two newly acquired hornbill birds were kept in a shack for seven months. When zoo workers complained to management, the birds were put into the wallaby exhibit, which stressed out the wallaby, who bloodied his nose on the enclosure wall when he tried to run away. Holly, one of two newly acquired red river hogs, became so malnourished she died. A dama gazelle and a kudu both died after running into barriers in their enclosures and breaking their necks. A young Przewalski’s horse also died after he broke his neck in a cage at the zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Przewalski’s horses are listed as endangered animals, and in the recent past were listed as critically endangered, so this loss is not only tragic for the individual, but also for this species as a whole.

Zoo officials insisted there were no problems, and the animals were doing just fine. Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the AZA, said in a news interview that the zoo had recently been evaluated and had met the AZA’s rigorous criteria for animal welfare, and that the events at the National Zoo were just natural. “The circle of life that occurs for all living things repeats itself in zoos on a daily basis,” he said. “Just as with humans, we notice more when it happens to celebrities, we tend to take more notice when these things happen at a place like the National Zoo because their zoo animals are the celebrities of the animal world.”

The introduction to the JAAWS special issue on management of zoos, by Cynthia Bennett, tells us that zoos and aquariums are committed to enhancing the welfare of nonhuman animals in captivity. Bennett admits, as does nearly everyone writing in the zoo-animal welfare literature, that our techniques and practices are not ideal and that animals are suffering. Animal welfare science was developed within the context of agricultural animals, and it isn’t all that easy to transfer welfare considerations from one venue to another, because the goals and focus are different.  Within agriculture, the focus is on the productivity of animals over a very short time period. This doesn’t translate seamlessly into a zoo setting, where animals are expected to live out their natural life span and where the goal is to keep them healthy, not necessarily to make them fat. Furthermore, welfare science in agriculture is focused on identifying and responding to poor welfare states, and not to actually optimizing happiness or quality of life. And finally, zoos generally forgo common domestic animals like pigs and cows, about whose welfare we have a great deal of information, and instead hope to house exotic, endangered, or charismatic species about whose welfare in captivity we know very little to nothing. Zoo administrators and managers simply can’t know what each of the thousands of different species of animal need and want within the captive environment. As a result, not all of these various creatures “are managed in fully evidenced-based, optimized ways.”

Bennett concludes, “Acceptable standards and best practices remain elusive and are often subject to debate.”  Yet she takes for granted that holding animals in captivity is perfectly acceptable and normal. Welfare science deflects attention away from moral concerns over animal captivity, because it stays focused on immediate welfare challenges and provides a nice veneer of scientific and thus ethical acceptability to the overall endeavor. When Bennett poses questions that might shape future discussion, she asks whether we might rethink the accepted rules of facility design “that give people more room and freedom to move than the captive animals they come to see.” This is a great question, because it exposes the irony and the fundamental insult of zoos: animals have had their basic freedoms stolen and are viewed as commodities, to feed human pockets.

What Kinds of Violations of Freedom Do Zoo Animals Experience?

The basic welfare problem of zoos, and the violation that causes the most misery, is the loss of the big F, Freedom. Attempts to provide bits and pieces of the Five Freedoms are of no consolation to an animal who has lost his most cherished possession.

What Do Zooed Animals Want?

This is easy, and we don’t need any preference studies to figure it out. They want to be free from captivity. Whether they are born into captivity or “born free,” wild animals “want” to live in a setting in which they can engage the repertoire of evolved behaviors that define them as a species.

Zoo Management: Welfare for Profit

In some respects, zooed animals are like farmed animals, because every aspect of their lives is managed by their human keepers. In welfarist lingo, this is “zoo animal management.” Indeed, running a successful zoo is much like running a successful business, balancing the costs of procuring and managing inventory against the profits from sales.

Zoo animals are carefully bred using studbooks and genetic analysis; social groupings are manipulated; animals are fed and watered at set times; deaths are scheduled and orchestrated by veterinarians or zoo managers; reproductive cycles are watched, sometimes controlled; birth is carefully managed; at some zoos, newborns (the core genetic inventory) are taken from their mothers and killed if not needed, or sold off, if necessary to optimize the zoo’s holdings and maximize profit. The costs of providing for animal welfare are always balanced against profit and optimization.

As in the other animal-centered venues we’ve discussed so far, money is one of the key drivers of zoo-animal welfare. Zoos have discovered that good welfare is more profitable, at least on the whole, than poor welfare. The one-hundred-million-odd people who visit zoos each year in the United States, for example, want to view animals who are active and engaged. It is much more fun to watch a lion stalking past the viewing window than to watch a lion sleeping or pacing back and forth, and far more entertaining to watch penguins dive and swim than to see them huddled on a fake glacier in a refrigerated cage.

Just as welfare of food animals is measured in productivity (number of eggs, liters of milk, quantity of muscle), so too is the welfare of zoo animals often measured not by how happy they are, but by how well they are serving the needs of zoo administrators and the public and how well they are generating money. What are the measures of welfare success used by zoos? One is fecundity; the more fertile a given animal the better they are thought to be doing. There is some science behind this, of course. Stress has a pronounced effect on reproduction. In particular, the stress hormone cortisol suppresses the secretion of reproductive hormones and can disrupt estrus cycles. So, poor reproduction is a sign of poor welfare. The corollary is assumed also to be true: good reproduction equals good welfare. And reproduction is one of the key drivers of a healthy zoo industry. A successful breeding program allows a zoo to build the “captive gene pool” of a given species, which the zoo industry can then use to further replicate animals. Zoos make money selling animals to other zoos; and live breeding animals—itinerant sperm donors—or their semen are traded around among zoos, as zoos seek to create the best collection. It is a great big game of musical animals and musical semen, though not a game that’s very much fun for the animals involved. (Marc first heard the term “musical semen” used by Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck Canada.)

One of the more nettlesome management dilemmas faced by zoos is the best way to deal with overly successful breeding and limited zoo space. And on this issue, American and European zoos take different approaches. In American zoos, the preferred approach is to make active use of contraceptives. All manner of animals, from chimpanzees to small rodents, are fed hormones to control ovulation and prevent pregnancies. The upside is that unwanted offspring don’t have to be killed. The downside is that many animals never get to engage in some of the most basic natural behaviors: giving birth and raising young. European zoos are less keen on denying their zoo animals these fundamental experiences, and will often allow animals to mate and bear offspring. As Bengt Holst, director of conservation for the Copenhagen Zoo, said in an interview, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible. We have already taken away their predatory and anti-predatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” Once the young reach the age at which, in the wild, they would become independent of their parents, they are removed and, if they aren’t needed for future breeding, they are killed.

Life span is another measure of good management/good welfare. Zoo managers often say things like, “Look! Our animals live even longer than they would have in the wild, which means they are safe and happy.” But for the animals themselves, of course, quantity isn’t necessarily the same as quality. There is the huge issue of having to live one’s entire life in captivity. But there are other problems, too. Because their lives are fairly sedentary, animals in zoos develop some of the same diseases as overfed and underexercised humans. Obesity can be a serious problem, leading some zoos to pursue absurd fixes like a treadmill built for Maggie, a fat elephant in the Alaska Zoo. She refused to use it. Animals fed a suboptimal diet over many years can develop other nutritional problems, such as hyperparathyroidism in large cats and cholesterol granulomas in meerkats. Hsing-Hsing, the famous panda housed at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, had a favorite treat, which his keepers kindly provided nearly every day: the waist-expanding Starbucks blueberry muffin.

When individuals in captivity live to be senior citizens, unique welfare problems can emerge. One study, for example, found that aged zoo animals, despite appearing healthy, often suffer from chronic health conditions, such as painful osteoarthritis, that go undiagnosed by zoo veterinary staff. On the other hand, over the past several years, as researchers and zoo staff have become better at recognizing the welfare challenges of geriatric animals, some zoos actually spend considerable energy and resources taking care of elderly or ill animals who cannot be displayed. Thus, it is not always true that animals living for a long time is good for a zoo’s bottom line. Moreover, although some species and some individuals may have longer lifespans in captivity, there are many species and individuals who do not.

Girafficide, aka Zoothanasia

One of the management tools of zoos is so-called management euthanasia, or what Marc has termed “zoothanasia.” Sometimes, of course, zoo animals are killed to relieve suffering. Animals become very old or terminally ill, and their pain cannot be adequately addressed with veterinary care. These account for some of the animals euthanized. But healthy animals are also killed, and for much more mercenary reasons. They are considered disposable when breeding programs are too successful or when a species is overrepresented.

The poster child for zoothanasia is Marius the giraffe. Marius lived at the Copenhagen Zoo until 2014, when he ceased to be genetically valuable. The zoo’s stated reason for “euthanizing” the eighteen-month-old giraffe was that he was not going to be a good breeder, because his genes were already well represented in the giraffe breeding program. Several other zoos and sanctuaries offered to take Marius in, but Copenhagen Zoo proceeded with the killing. As further public spectacle—or, as the zoo saw it, as an educational opportunity par excellence—Marius was publicly dismembered and fed, in large pieces, to some of the zoo’s carnivores. The most shocking thing is that Marius’s case is not an isolated one. Animals considered unwanted, surplus, or genetically unfit are routinely killed at zoos around the country and around the world. It is part of normal zoo-management practices.  So too is what zoo managers call “breed and cull,” where animals are allowed to reproduce but the offspring are killed.

One of the core ideologies of animal welfare science is that euthanasia of animals is acceptable. There is a strong preference for death over discomfort, and an unwillingness to accept death as a harm or even as a significant event in the lives of animals. This attitude detracts from our commitment to positive welfare, because we fail to acknowledge that the potential for future enjoyment might be valuable to animals. The acceptability of killing as a management strategy must be challenged. In April 2016 some good news came out of the Antwerp Zoo. It has introduced a no-kill policy for surplus animals. Healthy individuals will be allowed to live, even if the zoo doesn’t have space for them.

Captivity Is Harder on Some Than Others

As University of Guelph’s Georgia Mason notes, the diverse species held in zoos vary “in the propensities for good captive health and welfare.” Some species tend to be healthier, longer-lived, and more fecund than their wild counterparts; others survive and breed less well in captivity, and seem to suffer more psychologically. Why?

One risk factor that is very clear, and for which there are excellent data, is home-range size. Mason analyzed home-range size in relation to risk of developing stereotypies in zoos in several species. She found that animals with large home-ranges are at high risk of developing welfare problems in captivity. Polar bears, for example, have an average home range of 80,000 square kilometers. The average size of a polar bear enclosure in a zoo is one-millionth of this. Polar bears in captivity have high rates of stereotypies such as repetitive pacing and route tracing. Lions have home ranges of 350–900 square kilometers; rates of stereotypies in zoos are 48 percent. Elephant home range is 1,500–3,700 square kilometers. Zoo managers and welfare researchers have concluded that optimal size for an elephant zoo enclosure is 1.24 acres, which is about 0.005 square kilometers. Almost two-thirds of elephants in captivity develop stereotypies.

Another risk factor is what a species of animal eats and how they have evolved to procure food, and how well their natural foraging behaviors can be replicated in captivity. According to Mason’s research, “prey-chase” distances can predict stereotypic pacing in carnivores, as for wolves, who tend to chase prey over long distances, and are likely to develop stereotyped pacing. Another interesting set of research data on ruminant species suggests that browsers, who feed on woody shrubs, don’t do as well in captivity as grazers, perhaps because the behavioral needs of grazers are easier to simulate. She also predicts that dietary specialists (who eat a very narrow range of food) may be at greater risk for poor welfare and stereotypies than generalists (who can eat a variety of foods and are flexible in foraging style).

One of the factors that seems to protect captive animals is phenotypic plasticity, or the ability to alter behavior to suit current conditions. For example, what are sometimes called “weed species” (such as deer and coyotes) seem to do well just about anywhere. Also, being sedentary and of limited range (like sloths and koalas) seems to “preadapt” a species to captivity, as does being gregarious (like flamingos), as long as they have friends with whom to interact. Sometimes the factors that allow animals to do well in captivity are mysterious to zoo managers and researchers. For example, ring-tailed lemurs seem to thrive in all sorts of captive environments, but nobody is quite sure why.

Understanding the factors that predispose animals to poor welfare in captivity can help zoos develop effective enrichment strategies. For example, mimicking prey-chase behaviors or foraging styles can allow animals to engage in at least a small range of food-related behaviors. It can also help zoo managers and animal advocates establish a list of animals that simply should not be held captive. This list must include large mammals such as elephants, dolphins, and whales, whose social organization and territories cover vast expanses in the wild. It must include large carnivores such as lions, polar bears, and wolves, whose prey-chase behavior cannot be mimicked in captivity.

Making Zoo Animals Happy

Zoos love to showcase charismatic polar bears, because they are moneymakers who attract a lot of visitors. But the bears don’t fare well, and visitors often become concerned when they see the bears behaving strangely, such as rocking or pacing back and forth. Whether or not they understand what they are seeing, visitors find stereotypies disturbing to watch.

Just as for laboratory animals and farm animals, stereotypies are common in animals held in zoos and aquariums. One study, for example, found that polar bears spend an average of 11 percent of their day engaged in stereotypic behavior, and that stereotypy was correlated with higher fecal glucocorticoid concentrations, which mean higher levels of stress. Stereotypies are the physical manifestations of a pathology caused by confinement. In fact, this pathology has been given a name: zoochosis. The term was first used by Born Free Foundation’s Bill Travers, who rightly identified the abnormal repetitive, obsessive behaviors of zoo animals as a form of psychosis.1 Captivity literally drives animals mad. Animals in zoos can be seen pacing back and forth, tracing and retracing a particular route through their enclosure, plucking out all their feathers or pulling out all their hair, scratching or rubbing or licking themselves to the point of serious self-injury, biting the bars of their cages for hours on end, and engaging in what zoo managers euphemistically call “regurgitation and reingestion” (eating their own vomit).

Zoos can meet some of the needs of animals, but they surely cannot meet them all, and some animals’ needs are harder to provide than others or are simply impossible to provide. When an animal’s needs are not being adequately met, or when she faces “adverse conditions” such as frustration at not being able to perform a highly motivated behavior such as hunting or scent-marking, the frustrated behavior “spills over” into stereotypy. Stereotypies are also thought to be caused by brain dysfunction brought on by stress-induced damage to the central nervous system.

This stress-induced damage may be caused by the animal’s current environment, or might be a result of earlier trauma. Either way, stereotypies are widely regarded as a serious welfare concern.

As we noted above, stereotypies are common in captive polar bears, though absent from the wild. Giving polar bears certain “enrichments” seems to help. For example, giving bears more dry land area and visual access beyond their enclosure have both been shown to reduce pacing.  Often, the more naturalistic and free-living a captive animal’s environment, the fewer problems with stereotypies a zoo will see. Enrichment studies emerged primarily in response to the prevalence of stereotyped behaviors. How can we make bored and frustrated animals stop engaging in abnormal behaviors? By giving them stuff to do. But enrichment is also part of another related trend in animal welfare science, specifically paying more attention to positive welfare states. “Welfare” is being redefined as not merely the absence of or ability to successfully cope with negative experiences, but the promotion of states of enjoyment and happiness. This is an important shift in perspective.

Enrichment emerged as a topic in animal welfare science in the early 1980s, in relation to how the quality of an animal’s housing affects health and well-being—what is called “environmental enrichment.” Enrichment research fell into some disrepute among scientists during the 1990s, over concerns that animal interests are not necessarily served by enrichments. Since then, attention to enrichment has grown. Zoos are starting to have enrichment programs and departments, and to keep people on staff as enrichment managers. Some examples of zoo enrichments give a sense of what they try to accomplish. One of the most popular trends is to provide naturalistic zoo enclosures, which aim to give animals a tiny slice of home. A barren cage might be replaced with an “African savanna” full of tall grass and a few plastic “trees.” Cement “rocks” might be added to a penguin exhibit. Monkeys might be given climbing structures, “vines” on which they can swing, and platforms that provide some visual diversity. Elephants might be provided a mud pit in which they can cool off. One study showed that giving animals the choice to go outside, whether or not they opted to take advantage of it, had a positive behavioral effect.  At the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the red panda exhibit is built around a giant magic tree. At semi-random intervals, steel cups emerge from “knotholes” in the tree. Sometimes the cups contain food and sometimes they don’t, which the zoo’s curator says is just like nature: sometimes food just appears. At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the orangutans are given cut branches or hay or banana leaves so they can build nests. For jaguars, food and spices are hidden inside logs, so that the animals will be stimulated to search their exhibit for the scents. Big Cat Rescue in Tampa rotates animals into a “vacation enclosure,” which is much bigger and more interesting than the normal enclosures.

At the Beijing Zoo, officials have undertaken an environmental-enrichment initiative that involves allowing animals access to privacy. As one zoo official said in a news interview, “Animals have the right to be seen as well as not to be seen . . . Beijing zoo is continuing to add animals while allowing them the freedom ‘not to be seen.’ The plan is so effective that some unknowing tourists have even been ‘tricked’ into complaining that the zoo has fewer animals than previously.”  It may not seem like simply being watched would be a significant concern for animals, but research suggests that the mere presence of zoo visitors can be stressful for animals. For example, a recent study explored so-called “visitor effects” on little penguins and found that after exposure to visitors the birds showed increased aggression, vigilance, and avoidance behaviors such as huddling.  Enrichments are designed to improve animal welfare, and sometimes even to make animals happy. But they have a secondary purpose, which is to increase the entertainment value of the animals on display. Bored animals are boring to watch. People want to see the otters and seals swimming; they want to see the lions moving around, not just lying on a rock or hiding behind a tree. So keepers try to get the animals busy doing things that are fun and interesting to watch. According to a newspaper report, the Maryland Zoo has a full-time employee dedicated to enrichment, and one of this employee’s tricks is to spray Calvin Klein Obsession perfume—which is made with a synthetic form of civetone, a civet cat pheromone—on surfaces in the big cats’ enclosures, to encourage tracking and scent-marking behaviors.

Dr. Hal Markowitz, a longtime advocate of enrichment, marvels, in his book "Enriching Animal Lives," at how far we have come conceptually in understanding the reasons for enrichment and the ways to provide it. Yet he is at the same time dismayed at how little financial support is actually provided for enrichment. It remains “something of a nicety rather than a fundamental need in the eyes of many.”  If we are to continue keeping animals in confinement, this needs to change. Making animals happier must be a top priority, and written into the budgets of zoo managers. Nevertheless, we need to remember that enrichment is just a Band-Aid solution. It serves, like the Valium given to SeaWorld’s whales, to manage the symptoms. But it can’t treat the underlying disease. Only freedom from captivity can really resolve the illness.

By Marc Bekoff

Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. His books include Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Find him at and on Twitter @MarcBekoff.

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By Jessica Pierce

Jessica Pierce is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School. Her books include Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Find her at

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