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What big cats, giraffes and sun bears can teach us about innovation and animal welfare

This recent concept of cognitive ecology can truly change the way the animal world works. Not only does it prevent the general public from the ignorant behavior, but it can increase captive animal welfare.

For more on cognitive ecology, please see my article Cognitive Ecology: A better consideration for understanding the minds of animals.

Cognitive ecology is the opposite of anthropomorphism. To recap on the meanings of these two words, anthropomorphism is giving human characteristics to animals. Cognitive ecology is the study of how an organism gathers, interprets, stores, and relays information from its environment in response to the animal’s role in an ecosystem. Cognitive ecology understands that animals have evolved within their ecosystems over time, both physically and cognitively. Therefore, every animal perceives the world differently.

Over the last couple of months, a man has jumped into a lion enclosure, a tourist put a bison calf in its car because it was ‘cold’, and an infant jumped into a gorilla enclosure. All of these incidents have resulted in the euthanasia of the animals due to the ignorance of people. The general public has adopted a “Disney” mentality, where they now perceive animals through the romanticism of the media. This is the anthropomorphic result of interpreting the behaviors and the minds of animals with the biases of our own cognition and perception of the world.

I’ve been to Africa-people put distance between wild animals and themselves. They see wild animals as dangerous and threats to their villages, livestock, and crops. Here in the United States, we are obsessed with being “at one” with them. We play with them, we own them, and we want to cuddle with them for a tiger selfie.

Anthropomorphism is heavily used in animal rights campaigns as a strategy to bridge the gap between an animal’s emotions and our own. This is a very effective method because it allows the public to relate to animals with a deep emotional connection, further benefiting their campaign. It also makes us think that we are Tarzan or Dr. Dolittle, truly understanding exactly what animals are thinking and how they perceive the world. By the way, those are examples of media based fictional characters of animal romanticism.

Animals have emotions, YES!

Animals also have individual personalities and universal body language, YES!

BUT, the animal mind is so much more complex. Because different animal species have evolved different mechanisms of gathering and interpreting information (smell, hearing, vision, etc.), they see the world in their own individual way. Humans can only see a fragment of the light spectrum and hear between 20-20,000 hertz (Table 1). If information gathering is achieved through the senses, and our species is so restricted, we cannot compare our own minds to that of animals. These differences have evolved over millions of years in response to successful survive in an animals specific role in an ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the general public are not the only ones to fall victim to anthropomorphism. As animal care staff we provide our animals with daily enrichment to simulate wild behaviors. But these are our interpretation of their wild needs, not theirs. The concept of cognitive ecology is the best approach in achieving optimal welfare for captive animals.

To provide an example of this, I would like to talk about the cognitive ecology of big cats.

Big cats (tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards) are classified under the Genus Panthera, a grouping of felines that are recognize not for just their size, but their ability to roar. Prior to their endangerment and human-wildlife conflict, home ranges of big cats were bigger than any other feline species, so we can justly hypothesize that there is an evolved relationship between home range size and the ability to roar. What better way to communicate over large distances than to roar. Chemical communication is also advantageous over long distances and can be seen in cats during the Flehmen response (picture to the right). They are using the Jacobson’s Organ (humans lost ours) to detect scents in the air from miles away.

So besides eating, drinking, sleeping, and mating (which is universal in the animal kingdom), maintaining these large home ranges is the next priority of a big cat. In doing so, they are patrolling massive distances each day and coming in contact with new sights and smells from other animals passing through their area. In captivity, we replicate this perceived need by putting novel scents and novel objects in big cat enclosures.

Despite these efforts, we still see stress related behaviors (pacing) in captive big cats. Why? Our perception of their cognitive welfare has been novel sights and smells, but is that what they need? To me, a big cat has evolved to maintain massive home ranges, they have massive home ranges, they are classified under a specific genus because of an adaptation for their massive home ranges, and therefore the answer is not novelty, but distance to roam.

A 2014 study compared the pacing (stress) behavior to that total distance covered by 38 tigers in a small enclosure, medium enclosure, and large enclosure (Figure 1). The results were inversely related, meaning the greater distance the tigers were able to travel, the less they showed stress related pacing behaviors. This tells us that distance to roam is the primary cognitive function of big cats, second to eating, drinking, sleeping, and mating.

The connections that link the cognitive ecological approach to optimizing animal welfare can be seen at the subspecies level. Through my research, I stumbled upon a study that looked at the oral stress related behaviors of 247 captive giraffes from over 71 captive facilities. The study found a significant difference in the frequency of these behaviors between each giraffe subspecies. The Masi demonstrated less licking and pacing compared to the Reticulated and the Angolan subspecies. With consideration of cognitive ecology, I decided to investigate the ecosystem of each of the subspecies' individual home range (Figure 2).

I found that the Masi subspecies inhabits a more tropical climate with a higher density and diversity of plant species. This means that the Masi has developed their cognitive ecology in an area similar to a buffet in that they have an abundant food source, and require less moving around (pacing) and browsing (licking) to obtain that food. The Reticulated and Angolan inhabit dryer climates with less vegetation. Like traveling around a grocery food store collecting your salad ingredients, these subspecies must move around and browse more to acquire their dinner. Because the Reticulated and Angolan are not spending the majority of their time in captivity foraging for food, they continue to express these behaviors through licking and pacing.

Sun Bears also elicit oral stress behaviors, but it was found that if you increase their activity budget (their time spent looking for food) then the behaviors will decrease. This demonstrates how the animal mind, and therefore welfare, is so critically linked to their ecological role.

In 2007, authors Morgan and Tromborg reviewed 360 sources to investigate the causes of stress in captivity. They concluded that sources of stress in captivity primarily came from challenges associates with the animals’ environment. Remember, cognition gathers and interprets information from the environment, and therefore the environment directly impacts mental welfare. The article states,

“Research in support of the claims for these environmental elements as stressors for captive animals reveals no unique suite of behavioral or physiological responses that will clearly indicate the cause of those responses, rather, it is up to us as managers and caretakers of animals in captivity to evaluate enclosures and husbandry practices to ensure the optimal well-being of animals in our care.”

They found a difficulty in making connections to the stress related behaviors in captivity, and emphasize a need to evaluate enclosures and husbandry specific to each animal species. Captive animal facilities are yet to investigate optimizing welfare with consideration of animal cognition in relationship to their ecological role. We must put aside our interpretation of animals, and investigate how they perceive and understand the world in order to achieve this goal.

I am not here to bad mouth captive animal facilities because I strongly believe in them and I am in support of them. I am here to say that in order to maximize welfare in captivity, and progress in conservation, we must be innovative. We have been doing the same thing for decades and sources of stress in captivity remain the same. It is time to try new things and think differently.

Morgan and Tromborg’s article of stress in captivity was written in 2007. This is the same year that the original iPhone was launched. Some of you are probably reading this blog from an iPhone 6. In order to accomplish goals and be progressive within our industry we must adopt the practices of those industries that are most successful. Right now, the biggest tool for other industries is innovation. Innovation occurs at the center of different intersecting fields and that is exactly what cognitive ecology is, the intersection of animal behavior, psychology, ecology, and biology. It is time for a change.

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