Research probes how to keep tigers happy


PhD candidate Kat Tuite’s research is looking at techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care. Image: iStock

PhD candidate Kat Tuite’s research is looking at techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care. Image: iStock      

A Charles Darwin University (CDU) researcher has presented some preliminary results of her investigation into the techniques zookeepers use to enrich the lives of animals in their care.

PhD candidate Eileen “Kat” Tuite’s research has so far involved 36 interviews with zookeepers from 15 accredited zoos around the world. She recently attended the International Conference on Environmental Enrichment in Japan, presenting a snapshot of her early findings.

“There has been very little research undertaken into environmental enrichment practices in zoos around the world from the perspective of zookeepers in particular,” Kat said.

“Enrichment for animals is becoming more common, but despite the obvious welfare benefits of this form of husbandry, there is still differing views in terms of what the best approach is.”

Kat’s research is focused on tigers and the environmental enrichment approaches used in various zoos.

The early results have identified that one of the key aspects of enrichment was the use of natural and unnatural sources of enrichment, which has become a hot topic among zookeepers and zoos.

“This was one of the key barriers to enrichment practices identified in my interviews with zookeepers. Some zoos took the view that they would only use natural stimuli. Others took a different view, but it is a pivotal decision in terms of the scope and nature of what enrichment techniques can be used,” Kat said.

“One issue that was raised is the use of enrichment items that appear natural, which can often rule out the use of colourful and man-made materials. The restrictions placed on using these long lasting and more durable items has huge practical implications for zookeepers, and animals, because it removes the ability to easily wash, reuse or transfer items between pens, animals and even species.”

Kat said zookeepers often wondered about the basis of the natural versus unnatural decisions, questioning if it was properly taking into account the animal’s best interests.

“If an animal is engaged and stimulated by playing with a large plastic ball, some zookeepers wondered why that enjoyment had to be curtailed by a policy to use only natural looking enrichment,” she said.

Kat’s research took in zoos in the United Kingdom, South Africa, South East Asia, the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Australia.

She said the issue around natural and unnatural approaches to animal management was even extending to what tigers ate.

“Tigers in the wild obviously hunt prey and eat from the carcass. Some zoos are doing some soul searching about how to manage this in captivity. Do the tigers get a carcass feed while on public display? Or do they only get this opportunity when visitors are not around?” Kat said.

“Some zoos take the approach that visitors will be put off by seeing a tiger feeding on a carcass and go to some lengths to manage this perception. But it’s just a perception and there is no evidence that people have problems with seeing it.

“But it’s a prime example where there is a difference in management techniques around something as basic as feeding zoo animals. The next part of my study will look at how those decisions are made and how much the animal’s interests are actually taken into account,” Kat said.    

She will now attend Cambridge University’s Courses on Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law thanks to support from the UK-based Douglas Houghton Memorial Fund, which supports attendance at the course and projects that further the cause of animal welfare.

While in the United Kingdom, Kat also will investigate how zookeepers construct enrichment items during a workshop run by the Shape of Enrichment and will share some of her research insights with big cat keepers at the Association of British and Irish Wild Animal Keepers workshop.

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