Boredom Will Be the Death of Me: The Power of Animal Enrichment in Big Cat Conservation

Featured Image Caption: Members of order Carnivora, especially big cats like lions, show great benefits from enrichment. Zoos worldwide consider animal enrichment an integral part of the daily care of animals in captivity. (Image Source: “Giving Tree: Help provide the Zoo’s animals with great enrichment items” by Smithsonian’s National Zoo, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Reference: Ward, S. J., Hosey, G., Williams, E., & Bailey, R. (2022). Enrichment and animal age, not biological variables, predict positive welfare indicators in zoo-housed carnivores. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Have you ever heard a child complaining about being bored? Some even go as far as saying they feel like they’re going to die from boredom. That’s quite an exaggeration, isn’t it? Yet, behavioral scientists are discovering that this statement isn’t as farfetched as it seems, especially concerning animal enrichment and its impact on zoo animal welfare.

Animal enrichment refers to the practice of enhancing the environment of captive animals to promote their physical and psychological well-being. In big cat conservation, enrichment plays a crucial role in maintaining the mental and physical health of these majestic creatures. Enrichment activities stimulate the cognitive abilities of big cats, keep them physically active, and mimic aspects of their natural habitat, contributing to their overall welfare. Additionally, enrichment programs encourage natural behaviors essential for the mental and physical health of big cats, ultimately aiding in their conservation by improving their quality of life in captivity.

Image Caption: By providing opportunities for natural behaviors such as hunting, climbing, and exploring, enrichment helps alleviate boredom, stress, and stereotypic behaviors commonly observed in captive animals. (Image Source: “Sumatran Tiger” by Smithsonian’s National Zoo, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
But How Can We Measure Boredom?

Research on zoo animal welfare has grown significantly in the past two decades, focusing on evidence-based management decisions to support sustainable captive populations worldwide. Previous studies have highlighted issues such as low conception rates, high infant mortality, and abnormal behaviors in captive animals, particularly in species of the order Carnivora—which includes big cats like tigers, lions, and cheetahs. Zoo animal welfare is often determined by positive indicators involving behaviors that demonstrate comfort or engagement with the environment, though caution is advised in their interpretation. This led Dr. Samantha Ward and their collaborators to study whether natural biological factors such as habitat diversity, social behavior, and body weight, or husbandry practices such as group size and enrichment provision, can predict rates of positive welfare indicators, such as activity, play, and engagement with the environment, especially in species of the order Carnivora.

Image Caption: There are various types of animal enrichment, such as environmental, social, cognitive, sensory, or food enrichment. In this example, this tiger is seen to have environmental, sensory, and food enrichment, which all contribute to his wellbeing. (Image Source: “Playing with his food….” By Bennilover, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0).

Their study constructed databases comprising data on three behaviors indicative of positive welfare—activity, play, and interaction with the environment—alongside four biological variables and three husbandry variables. Behavioral data, sourced from peer-reviewed journals, scientific reports, and dissertations, were expressed as percentages of time spent on activities, excluding stereotypic behaviors. Biological predictor variables were obtained from the IUCN Red List and mammalogical references, while husbandry data included group age, group size, and provision of additional enrichment. Databases were compiled using individual and group data, with a third database featuring the average behavior and activity levels for each species. These databases provided insights into the factors influencing positive welfare indicators in Carnivora species, covering 136 individuals across 23 species for activity data, 55 individuals across 15 species for interaction with the environment data, and 27 individuals across 7 species for play data. The data analysis employed phylogenetically controlled Bayesian linear mixed-models to investigate the relationship between independent variables—biological and husbandry variables—and dependent variables—percentage of time spent in activity, interaction with the environment, or play—in Carnivora species. Two sets of analyses were conducted: individual level, where data were analyzed for individual animals, and species level, where data from all studies were summarized.

So, What Did This Study Show Us?

The analysis revealed that biological variables such as latitudinal range, number of habitats, sociality, and mean body weight did not predict positive welfare indicators in members of the order Carnivora held in captivity. Instead, the mean age of the social group and the presence of environmental enrichment were significant predictors, suggesting that appropriate husbandry practices can promote positive welfare regardless of species characteristics. While it’s important to note that welfare is measured on a continuum scale, the provision of environmental enrichment was found to be crucial not only in reducing stereotypical anxious behavior but also in increasing activity and interaction with the environment. The analysis also highlighted the decline in activity and play with increasing group age, aligning with general mammalian behavior patterns. Interestingly, the failure of biological variables to predict positive welfare indicators contradicts previous suggestions regarding the importance of species characteristics in zoo environments. Overall, the results emphasize the importance of environmental enrichment in promoting positive welfare and suggest the need for further research using additional measures of positive welfare in zoo-housed Carnivora.

So, big cats can definitely be bored to death. By providing proper enrichment and respecting their nature, we can make their lives in captivity fulfilling. Although we may want to see these animals wild and free, as they should be, we also recognize the importance of zoos and rehabilitation programs that aid in conservation, education, and awareness of these big cats and their declining populations. Zoos provide researchers with access to captive big cat populations, allowing for studies on behavior, reproduction, genetics, and veterinary care. This research contributes to our understanding of big cat biology and ecology, informing conservation strategies both in captivity and in the wild. Additionally, zoos often serve as rescue centers for big cats confiscated from illegal trade, injured in the wild, or orphaned. By providing veterinary care and rehabilitation services, zoos can give these animals a second chance at life while also contributing to conservation efforts. Conducting research on best ethical practices of zoo captivity, like the study conducted by Dr. Samantha Ward and their collaborators, are crucial to maintaining the well-being of large cats in captivity. Thanks to these studies and the continuous efforts of zoo staff on bettering enrichment practices, we’re able to see big cats behaving like big cats and living their best lives under their circumstances.

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Andrea Valcarcel

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Biology from Thompson Rivers University (BC, Canada), I am currently working as the head of an Oceanic Lab in the Dominican Republic while also being an MSc candidate in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. My research so far has been mostly focused on corals and marine mammals and the effects climate change may have in their overall behavior and survival. When not monitoring marine ecosystems, you can find me volunteering with my therapy dog and reading romance and fantasy novels. Twitter: @andreavalcar

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