Category Archives: zoo visitors

“We’ll Skip the Small Mammal Building”

Rarely do you hear the zoo visitor soliciting directions to the small mammal exhibits from docents, guest services, or other zoo personnel.  Most people are eager to get right to the big guys.  Guests hastily try to orient themselves with respect to some key locales with the help of the printed zoo maps.  They are challenging for some people to use at first, but they are actually quite useful if you have some patience. Yes, some people are most eager to visit the restroom, the gift shop, or perhaps the restaurant.  Others quickly embark on a journey to see the high-profile species. Among these people some are too excited to fumble with the schematic map and  start following patrons who appear to know where they are going. Although many seek out the quickest route to the mega-fauna on display (e.g., big cats, apes, marine mammals, and elephants, etc.), a few are probably more systematic in their approach to comprehensive zoo animal viewing.

But once the visitors, regardless of their interests or enthusiasm, catch site of the crowds hovering over something seemingly insignificant, their curiosity over rides the impulse to pass up anything of potential interest and temptation leads them to follow others.

BBC News

The most popular exhibits that may serve as the impetus for visiting the zoo in the first place may eventually take a back seat to the lesser known and underappreciated displays of charismatic min-fauna.  By the time you leave the zoo, your party may have all but forgotten the lions and tigers and bears. While reflecting on your zoo visit the interest in mega-fauna is  somehow superseded by discussion of meerkats, and prairie dogs, and naked mole rats.  These semi-fossorial and fossorial species are highly social, perceived as “cute” and their high energy levels make them particularly interesting to watch. Even those distracted by ADHD or cotton candy find these animals to be fascinating. Their impromptu “pop up” performances are riveting.

True fossorial mammals live their entire lives virtually underground, but due to some fantastic exhibit design zoos now offer subterranean viewing of these eusocial, true fossorial mammals.  The African mole rats or blesmols, including the naked mole rat (which is commonly displayed in zoos) use their incisors to dig through soil.  The smallest of  the fossorial rodents may burrow at a rate of 4m/h. This energy expenditure comes at a cost, but indicates just how much energy these animals can expend in a short period of time. To restore energy small mammals are typically voracious eaters and consume a lot of food .

Energy expenditure is determined by body size, climate, and foraging habits.  The physiological parameters considered in the measurement of the metabolic activity and the general energetics of small endotherms (animals that regulate their own body temperature) must be considered when comparing wild animals to zoo animals. Even captive small mammals will be quite active and captivating to watch. The abundance and distribution of food resources in captivity are far different from what is available to wild animals.  This may permit visitors with more of an opportunity to observe a certain spectrum of behaviors.  This is purely speculation.

Without concern for predators or other coteries (harems) of prairie dogs, the behavioral repertoire of captive prairie dogs may differ or be limited compared to wild prairie dogs. None-the-less, their social interactions are most interesting.  I should mention that prairie dogs are very important to prairie ecosystems, and they are actually ground squirrels. They do bark like dogs.

Today prairie dog exhibits allow kids and adults to view these animals under ground and are also designed to simulate fossorial activities.  I first worked with a black-tailed prairie dog enclosure with a bottomless enclosure.  In an effort to deter the animals from burrowing out of the exhibit, I placed long white, plastic tubes above ground to encourage the animals to spend more time at the surface. This alone won’t discourage burrowing activity, but it provides secure above ground retreats.

Black-tailed prairie dogs which one numbered in the billions were candidates for the endangered species list. They are highly susceptible to plague and human activity has heavily fragmented their habitat.  Today they are commonly displayed in zoos. A mentor of mine, Dr. Penny Bernstein began studying black-tailed prairie dog communicative behavior at the Philadelphia Zoo in the 1970’s.  The Philadelphia Zoo continued to study the behavior of these animals as have other living institutions.  More recently, the Denver Zoo has dedicated an entire day to prairie dog awareness.  A good reference for prairie dog information is the following website

Dr.  Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

The Bear That Could Pace

I recently visited the Large Animal Clinical Science’s web page hosted by the  Western College of Veterinary Medicine (Canada). While scrolling down the page, a link to an applied ethology resource caught my attention.  Behavioral science resources are now more commonly made available for veterinary faculty and students, but often these resources are limited to the discussion of domesticated species. Applied behavior as it relates to exotic, zoo animal, and alternative livestock may be neglected to some degree.  If anything, animal health programs may dedicate more educational resources to the emerging field of behavioral genomics.

As I perused the topics I came across some information concerning the  manifestation of stereotypic behavior in zoo carnivores and primates.  The topic was was addressed in some detail and the information was relatively current.  Nothing  I read would surprise the zoo professional. In general, stereotypies in these taxa have received much attention in zoo science and applied animal welfare publications.   Again, this is pretty common knowledge.  I don’t argue that efforts should be made to mitigate aberrant behavior.  Many investigators have examined the possible etiologies of stereotypic pacing.  Not everyone agrees on what causes it or how to address it.  But it may be just as important to consider how serious these aberrant behaviors are in the context of a larger picture -a more comprehensive evaluation of an individual animal’s quality of life.

At one extreme laboratory animals have exhibited self-mutilation and reduced reproductive success.  However, zoos were the first to examine captivity-induced stereotypic behavior and they were the first living institutions to address this concern.  Enrichment programs have reduced stereotypies in the species that have been the subject of intense study by more than 50%.  Most of these subjects include the intelligent charismatic species such as bears, elephants, and primates.

Zoos, aquariums and marine parks provide quite the hospitable environment for their collection animals.  If we consider the quality of life of captive born and reared animals compared to the challenges facing their wild counterparts, our perspectives and attitudes may change.

Wild animals face  increasingly compromised natural environments as a consequence of habitat encroachment and fragmentation which exacerbate the daily struggles to find food and mates, raise offspring and defend territories. Captivity starts to look pretty good.

I remember that I used to bite my nails before big exams, but no one ever called social services. I don’t dismiss that fact that some captive animals may exhibit aberrant behavior, but I also know that we don’t home school children with restless leg syndrome just because they are known to tap their feet incessantly in school.  They may be more of a distraction to others than a risk to themselves.  We can’t eliminate environmental stressors altogether.

In my opinion zoo life is a pretty good deal.  The arranged marriage issue is the only thing that I would want to negotiate, but I think that animals are much less discriminating in regards to choosing mates. In captivity the  mate selection for both the sire and dam consists of unrelated, well fed, conspecifics in good body condition, not to mention that available partners are most likely to be pathogen free.   In the wild, you’d have to sort through a lot of goldfish before you find some Koi.  In captivity the studbook keeper serves as one heck of a matchmaker.   I digress….

I’ve seen a more than a few bears pace in my time and I’m really quite impressed with the extensive amount of research that has been conducted on stereotypic behavior in an effort to improve the psychological well-being of these animals.  I also remember how often keepers inadvertently may have reinforced this behavior in an attempt to stop it.  I may have done it myself. It’s amazing how an animal may appear to be in a “zone” or stupor as it repetitively follows the same figure eight pattern as part of an apparent  appetitive behavior.  However, they may snap out of it quite readily and come to life, if you will.  They may smell their keeper or see or hear them in front of the exhibit.  I often wondered if this pacing routine was just a ploy to get the attention of a caregiver.  Polar bears may not look like they are always thinking, but I was always thinking they are.

I mentioned behavioral genomics earlier and wanted to direct your attention to the following article:  Genomics Meets Ethology I have been interested in genetic predisposition to communicable pathogen resistance in zoo animal populations, but I also have been very interested in a genetic predisposition to stress tolerance and perhaps aberrant behaviors such as stereotypies.  It may be very controversial to exclude individuals from participation in breeding programs because of pacing behavior or other unwanted behaviors, but it has been looked at with much greater frequency in domestic livestock.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

Photo by J.Schaul ( view with Int. Expl.

Imperfect Specimens

In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence.  I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center (NMFS)

But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case.  If you have worked  with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage.   Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of  California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards.   It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured.   In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies.  I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.

Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before.   It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.

I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect.  It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching.  Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.

I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.

Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens.  Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons.  They may have studied newly described species  or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus