Issue 9
Monday, 05 November 2018
Charles Darwin University
CDU PhD candidate Eileen “Kat” Tuite, is investigating the techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care
CDU PhD candidate Eileen “Kat” Tuite, is investigating the techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care

Research fixes on tigers and their carers

A Charles Darwin University PhD candidate is investigating the techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care.

Eileen “Kat” Tuite will visit Singapore Zoo and the Singapore Night Safari in early November to conduct research and brief zookeepers on her research project.

“The project aims to gain insights into environmental enrichment practices in zoos around the world from the perspective of zookeepers in particular. These practices can range from novel stimuli to keep animals engaged, to aspects of enclosure design,” she said.

Enrichment for animals is becoming more common, but despite the obvious welfare benefits of this form of husbandry, there is still inconsistency. Some zoos use enrichment every day, while others may only provide extra stimulus for animals as an additional practice.

“Much of the current scientific knowledge about captive animal management hasn’t touched on the knowledge base of zookeepers yet it’s these men and women who are managing the animals 365 days a year,” Kat said.

“I want to tap into this knowledge, identify beneficial practices and look at ways of disseminating that knowledge more widely.”

The project genesis goes back to when Kat was volunteering on a project to save and rehabilitate bears in Vietnam.

“The project rescued bears destined for the traditional medicine trade, rehabilitated them and released them back into protected national parks. But some bears couldn’t transition from the captive environment back into the wild very well.

“This is where my interest in captive animal management came from. Despite lots of keeper dedication and their best efforts to rehabilitate these bears, for some animal’s recovery was difficult. I started thinking about what can be done to ensure all animals are as happy as possible in a captive environment,” Kat said.

The research will focus on tigers and the environmental enrichment processes in various zoos.

“I chose tigers as nearly every zoo has them. This means I can focus on a species that is present throughout the world for my research, which will provide insights and a comparison of enrichment techniques,” she said. 

“There are also more tigers in captivity than in the wild so the enrichment and husbandry of animals in zoos is hugely important for their welfare and the future of the species.

“The zookeepers in charge of their wellbeing is a huge knowledge resource on how best to manage them, but they are also largely untapped from a research perspective. That’s why my research will very much focus at this level,” she said.

The research will involve interviews and questionnaires with zookeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the UK. The involvement of zoo staff can help to identify the factors, both positive and negative, that influence the enrichment of the tigers in their care.

The overall findings will be shared with participants to support zoo staff in continuing to build on existing and new enrichment practices.

“As important as it is to gain insights about enrichment practices, it’s also valuable to consider the perspectives of zookeepers and how they apply their knowledge to get the best outcomes possible for the animals,” Kat said.