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Feeding Minds and Bodies in Zoos

Dr Jake Veasey

Feb 25, 2024

Find out why considerations of what we feed animals shouldn't eclipse considerations of how we feed them.

In our ongoing commitment to raising welfare standards in zoos, sanctuaries, aquariums, and wildlife parks around the world, we consistently encounter a glaring disparity between the ability of institutions to meet the nutritional needs of animals, and their ability to cater to the behavioural and cognitive needs of animals associated with feeding. This single issue underpins many of the challenges faced by captive wild animals, and is one of our key focus areas.

Data from one of our historic, whole institution assessments illustrates this problem well - while most modern zoo habitats excel in meeting species’ nutritional needs, a more or less equal percentage fail in addressing the behavioural and cognitive needs of animals linked to feeding and drinking. These results aren't unusual, and represent a systemic, and arguably under-appreciated constraint on the welfare of captive wild animals.

The relative success of a zoo nutrition program in supporting physical and behavioural needs

Feeding related behaviours and cognitive process matter to an individual's welfare because they are crucial for survival in the wild, and so have evolved to be highly, and frequently motivated, and since they are triggered largely by internal drivers, they manifest in any environment, including captive habitats. What that means is, is that when the expression of these behaviours and cognitive processes are frustrated by captive circumstances, their impacts on an animal's welfare are correspondingly severe.

Whilst zoos tend to be great in fulfilling the physiological requirements for nutrition and hydration, this proficiency does not necessarily extend to catering to the psychological needs of animals in relation to feeding, as our data suggests. The ease of quantifying the effects of diet on physical health often overshadows the more elusive, yet equally vital, psychological impacts of how we should feed animals. 

The popularity of commercially prepared, processed diets, designed for nutritional rather than psychological benefits illustrate this point. While health is more measurable than welfare and has a more straightforward, tangible relationship with nutrition than nutrition does with welfare, considerations of what we feed animals should not eclipse considerations of how we feed them. In recognising the equally important role of feeding in safeguarding physical and psychological needs, it’s important to also acknowledge there is no need for a trade-off between the two. Instead, psychological considerations must be viewed as fundamental as nutritional ones in formulating feeding strategies for captive wild animals.

Another important step forward is recognising that feeding and drinking are not events, they are the culmination of an often extensive range of appetitive behaviours and cognitive processes, which typically involve a complex interplay between a species' instincts and its environment, learning and experience, social circumstances, seasonality, physiological states, and much more besides. All too often, these complex dimensions can be relegated to secondary considerations, if they are even considered at all.

For social carnivores such as lions and hunting dogs for example, the act of feeding must be viewed as a cooperative undertaking rather than a potentially risky competitive event that needs managing in captive contexts, and which, cannot realistically be catered for in a species appropriate manner using "safer, nutritionally complete" commercially prepared diets. For social species, feeding is intimately intertwined with social cohesion and social facilitation, and subsequently, how we feed them has a broader, collective net welfare impact. For elephants, feeding is also a cooperative coordinated undertaking, relying on collective decision making and matriarchal wisdom, which if managed correctly in captive contexts can support social cohesiveness and herd welfare, and if not, can actively undermine both. And yet, sadly, conventional captive management practices can overlook much of the nuance associated with a species’ feeding ecology, and the broader impacts of how food is provided.

Feeding strategies don't always transfer to related species as successfully hoped

 The frequent use of generalised feeding enrichment strategies for species and circumstances where they might not be appropriate are a case in point. For example, transferring scatter feeding strategies which work well for omnivorous bears to carnivorous polar bears, assigning individual portions to social animals, and universally underestimating the role of travel in foraging, which should also include decision-making, navigation, and learning—illustrate the behavioural and cognitive deficit in many existing feeding protocols, irrespective of their nutritional merits.

The path to rectifying these pervasive shortcomings begins with acknowledging the deficiencies in how we feed animals, not just what we feed them, as well as recognising their welfare consequences, and then, committing to informed action. At Care for the Rare, we use the Animal Welfare and Priority Identification System (AWPIS) to systematically assess and understand all aspects and welfare impacts of the evolved needs of species, including their feeding ecology, a process that goes far beyond nutritional considerations, but nonetheless, doesn't neglect them. This ongoing work, which has been undertaking in collaboration with over 150 species and subject matter experts from 60 or more zoos, sanctuaries, universities, conservation and animal welfare NGO’s from around the world, is beginning to lift the veil on our understanding of what really matters to wild animals.

Not all enrichment does what its intended to

In addition to some highly species-specific insights, some universal trends are beginning to reveal themselves, including in relation to feeding. One intriguing finding, derived from our data using non-hierarchical cluster analysis is that diet, home range, and sociality interact to have a greater influence on the relative welfare significance of shared behaviours and cognitive processes than taxonomy does – and so for example, a polar bear has more in common in terms of welfare priorities with a Siberian tiger than it does an Asiatic black bear, and a lion has more in common with an Asian elephant than it does a tiger!

The journey towards enhancing zoo, sanctuary, and aquarium animal welfare is of course multifaceted, but too often its viewed in a highly compartmentalised way. In many institutions for example, nutritionists devise, and commissaries prepare diets calibrated to maintain physical wellbeing, for animal carers to then deploy them in the management of animals in habitats, designed by landscape architects. What AWPIS and subsequent cluster analysis is revealing is all species’ priorities and needs are connected and cannot be viewed in isolation, and we need to consider animal management and facility design in the same way, from the ground up, as part of a more cohesive, welfare enhancing whole, including how we feed animals. 

How animals have evolved to secure and process food in the wild is amongst the most important considerations in determining strategies to improve their welfare in captivity. Therefore, the feeding ecology of a species needs to be seamlessly integrated into facility design and day to day management, rather than it being a retrospective consideration, all too frequently reliant upon enrichment and training as stopgaps that inevitably face an uphill battle in effectively addressing underlying welfare issues.

Progress in welfare management in zoos has not been consistently impressive

And so for example, while choice and decision making are rightly recognised as important components of captive animal welfare, their welfare enhancing power is magnified when they are linked, in a biologically appropriate way, to other important behaviours and cognitive processes such as feeding. By embracing a more nuanced, holistic understanding of the behavioural, cognitive, and nutritional needs of wild animals, and refusing to be satisfied with the status quo, we can start to significantly improve the lives of animals in captivity.

This is what we at Care for the Rare are in the business of doing. To find out more, please don’t hesitate to reach out and find out more.

#zoo #sanctuary #aquarium #animalwelfare #nutrition #zoonutrition #enrichment #animaltraining #zoodesign #conservation #carefortherare #welfaresciene 

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