Common Themes of Zoo Reflections

Many of you brought up some common themes in your zoo reflections. Rather than writing about my own reflections, I wanted to address some of the issues that many of you brought up.

One observation that many of you noted was your concern over enclosure sizes and the ethics about keeping the gorillas in captivity. One thing I want to point out is that zoos vary greatly in their exhibit size, structure, and organization or different species. Often, zoo will put a lot of effort into new exhibits that provide a great habitat for particular species, while other animals will remain in older enclosures. Zoos have had tremendous changes in the past thirty years or so, as they update their housing and enrichment to better provide for the welfare of the animals. Nonetheless, financial constraints mean that they usually invest in only a few updated structures at a time.

Compared to other gorilla habitats at other zoos, I would say that the outdoor enclosure for the gorillas is fairly average. I’ve seen larger and smaller enclosures, but I think what’s more important for the gorillas is the enrichment of the environment. The thing I liked best about the North Carolina’s enclosure is that they had outdoor access with natural vegetation they could forage on, in addition to their creature comforts of woodwool (the bedding material) and burlap. The one thing I thought it was lack was vertical or arboreal spaces that they could use to climb on. I also would have preferred to see more forms of enrichment. Although I did like that they did have the option to forage on plants in their enclosure, it would be if they had other options to encourage foraging. For example, some zoos will hide prized food items in boxes, fake tree captivities, or other objects that require more work to obtain their food resources. Some will also provide fake termite mounds filled with honey, ketchup, or jam that they can extract using tools (although this is more commonly given to chimps and orangs). Some of the gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo also participate in touch-screen games/research, which provides them with stimulating activity while allowing zoo scientists to conduct cognitive research. However, some enrichment activities are used sporadically to keep an element of novelty and surprise–it’s likely that the gorillas at the North Carolina Zoo do receive some forms of enrichment that we didn’t get to see.

As for absolute enclosure sizes, obviously there none of them are as large as their wild ranges, and sometimes it’s disappointing to see them in small spaces. However, while larger animals generally need larger spaces, the species-typical activity patterns are often more important in deciding how much space the animals need. For example, even though gorillas are larger than chimpanzees, because of their rest-and-digest energetic strategies, they are unlikely to need and utilize as much space as the more active chimpanzees.

Some of you hypothesized that Acacia’s previous escape attempt was due to the size of the enclosure or her unhappiness at being confined. While we cannot know for sure the motivations for those escape attempts, I suspect it was driven by curiosity and innovation–sometimes escape attempts can be a form of enrichment they develop themselves! This suggest to me that Acacia, and the other gorillas, would benefit from some cognitively-challenging enrichment to channel that energy.

Below is a video of a recent escape attempt by orangutans at the Indianapolis Zoo. This is a new enclosure that appears to have a lot of space and enrichment for the orangutans–however, their curiosity and intelligence means they can find ways to outsmart keepers and curators!

Another issue many of you mentioned was visitor behavior. Some visitors were respectful, interests in learning, and asked a lot of questions about the observation you were doing. However, others displayed a level of ignorance about them (the ooh-ooh-ahh-ahh noises, calling them monkeys) or were disrespectful (banging on the glass). Visitors come to the zoo with different backgrounds, and different goals. Usually, people visit for entertainment purposes–do zoos actually fulfill their goals of educating people? While this is debatable, some research on this subject does indicates that visitors do learn about biodiversity by visiting zoos. Nonetheless, its not as much as we might hope.

These two issues led a lot of you to bring up the ethical considerations of keeping animals in captivity, and a lot of you expressed concern about this. This is a really complex issue that continues to be debated right now. Some of this depends on the animals in question–for example, a lot of the discussion on ethics in captivity is currently focused on elephants and marine mammals. While I think this needs to be considered separately in regards to the needs and welfare of different animals, I do think that there are some positive consequences of keeping primates in zoos. In particular, I think that when people see primates and recognize their similarities to ourselves (as many of you mentioned in your posts), it helps them to identify with and empathize with the animals to a greater degree.

Below is a  couple blog post I previously wrote addressing some of the issues with captivity, as well as a link to an article about a recent study indicating that visits to zoos and aquariums do improve visitors knowledge about biodiversity (though it irks me when any headline uses the word “prove” when describing scientific research). I’ve also linked the report itself.

Zoo Goals: Conservation, Education, and Research

The Efficacy of Zoo Goals: Empirical Evidence

Largest International Study Proves Zoos and Aquariums do Teach us about Biodiversity

A Global Evaluation of Biodiversity Literacy in Zoo and Aquarium Visitors






About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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