Small enclosures reportedly cause zoochosis in animals

Small enclosures reportedly cause zoochosis in animals
MGN
All About Animals

POSTED: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 - 3:00pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 - 3:02pm

By Amanda Taylor

Salt Lake City, UT (KSL) -- Animals in zoos unused to the conditions and close quarters of their enclosures can develop mental health issues, experts say.

These animals respond with erratic behavior not native to their species. Slate tells the story of a polar bear named Gus who used to swim endless figure eights in his small pool.

"Many animals cope with unstimulating or small environments through stereotypic behavior, which, in zoological parlance, is a repetitive behavior that serves no obvious purpose, such as pacing, bar biting, and Gus' figure-eight swimming," Slate said. "Trichotillomania (repetitive hair plucking) and regurgitation and reingestation (the practice of repetitively vomiting and eating the vomit) are also common in captivity."

Experts have called these habits "zoochosis." They behave in ways that would not occur in the wild, if the animals were left to their own devices.

"In captivity, animals may face a number of challenges for which evolution has not prepared them," Born Free, a non-profit that works to keep animals in the wild, explained on its site. "The climate, diet and the size and characteristics of the enclosure may be completely alien to the species as it exists in the wild."

Many zoos have recognized and addressed the problem of zoochosis by giving the animals more complex activities like food that takes longer to eat, or puzzles and other distracting toys. According to Slate, enriching the enclosures of animals in zoos has reduced zoochosis by 53 percent.

Laurel Braitman, author of "Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves," told Slate that drugs are often used in zoos, though they are not inclined to admit it.

"Finding out that the gorillas, badgers, giraffes, belugas, or wallabies on the other side of the glass are taking Valium, Prozac, or antipsychotics to deal with their lives as display animals is not exactly heartwarming news," Braitman said.

Since zoos are designed to be enjoyed by humans, Slate said, there are few advantages for the animals on display. It is stressful to be stared at, and they are stuck in tiny fractions of the space they would have in the wild. Although zoos claim to be introducing visitors to animals in an attempt to foster conservation, there is no evidence that is effective.

"An examination of the study by researchers at Emory University found the results exaggerated, noting that 'there is no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in their visitors,'" Slate said. 

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