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How Zoos Are Driving Animals Crazy

One year ago this week, Little Joe's escape from Franklin Park Zoo ignited a fury over whether animals are suffering in captivity. The author, an authority on this subject, argues that zoos can help animals, but only with the right nurturing touch.

It was a year ago this week that the 300-pound adolescent gorilla Little Joe escaped from Franklin Park Zoo -- running through the grounds, injuring two people, and then frantically making his way past zoo gates to the street beyond before being subdued with tranquilizer darts. But Little Joe's breach of security did more than spark a tabloid kind of buzz. This too-clever-for-his-own-good gorilla also set something in motion much bigger than an emergency response team -- he got folks all around the country talking seriously about the role of zoos in society and the relative happiness of the animals that live inside them.

Oddly, the debate was prompted by a mis-conception about the escape. Many people thought the gorilla's flight was an indictment of the conditions he was kept in. It wasn't. Little Joe wasn't complaining about his digs, he was just doing what any healthy and curious young gorilla would do -- testing his boundaries. But the conversations that came out of all this -- in newspapers, on radio and TV, and at dinner parties -- have been heart-felt, insightful, and crucial to the future of the American zoo, an institution teetering between a quaint past of Victorian-era displays and a formidable future in which they will play a leading role in conservation and in our understanding of animals themselves.

The central paradox of zoos -- that wild animals don't belong behind bars -- remains the same today as it did a few years ago, or even a hundred, for that matter. But with all the interest in Little Joe's care, I wondered if zoos were any closer to the humane ideal spoken of but not yet implemented when I toured so many zoos and interviewed so many dedicated zoo biologists in the mid-1990s, a heady time for zoos, when a healthy economy fueled something of a renaissance.

Since then, the sometimes chaotic battle to make conservation and the preservation of endangered species a core mission of American zoos has largely been won. All zoos that are accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association have gotten religion -- they fund projects in the field, they generously loan their specimens (even the most charismatic ones) out to other zoos for mating purposes, and they have applied their stores of scientific knowledge about medical and nutritional care to the needs of conservationists in the field. Biologists working in the wild, for example, have zoos to thank for identifying the precise drugs and dosages required to anesthetize their subjects. And field researchers have analyzed paw prints from zoo jaguars to help them read the tracks and estimate the size of wild cats in the forest.

These days, zoos aren't just talking about conservation (a stance many were guilty of in the mid-1990s); they are doing something about it. Some are absolute paragons. The Wildlife Conservation Society based out of the Bronx Zoo, for instance, actually commits more resources and staff to the field than bigger and better-known wildlife groups. Even smaller zoos run conservation programs around the world. Zoo New England, which runs both Franklin Park and Stone Zoo, boasts projects to help cranes and snow leopards in Asia, wild dogs in Africa, and jaguars in Central America.

Aside from conservation, one of the biggest questions about zoos -- the one that bubbled to the surface with the Little Joe episode -- is about animal welfare. Are zoo animals essentially being driven crazy in captivity just so we can gawk at them?

THE RECENT EVIDENCE HAS BEEN STRONG and steady that in too many cases, the answer is yes. The most obvious indicator is "stereotypic behavior," and it can be witnessed in any zoo. When tigers pace, elephants sway, or monkeys overgroom, they are ritualistically performing monotonous motions that change the animal's brain chemistry, possibly releasing pleasurable endorphins. The problem is a complex one, not fully understood, but we do know that bored animals in captivity indulge in this behavior and that it is never seen in the wild.

A study published in the journal Nature last year made plain that large carnivores that inhabit vast ranges in the wild fare poorly in captivity. They don't breed well, their health can be questionable, and they have a high incidence of stereotypic behaviors. Unhappy captive birds are known to pluck their feathers out, and marine mammals may repetitively swim in a orchestrated pattern, without variation.

Intelligent animals of all kinds suffer. The public learned in the wake of Little Joe's escape that in zoos around the country, researchers have tried treating captive gorillas with psychopharmaceuticals like Haldol, Prozac, and Valium. It was concern for the well-being of its two elephants that, in May, prompted the Detroit Zoo to pursue placing the charismatic creatures in sanctuary. Zoo director Ron Kagan said that the area's cold weather, the small exhibit, and the lack of engaging social activity were compelling reasons to surrender the pair.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS WRITING my book on the history of zoos, The Modern Ark, I was concerned about just these problems and intrigued by a new concept to combat them: behavioral enrichment. It wasn't grabbing headlines the way the breeding of endangered species was, but I thought it one of the most important developments a zoo could invest in. And "invest" is the operative word, because the practice is so expensive.

More recently, I wondered about the state of enrichment in zoos today. What do zoo visionaries have to say about it? Where do they think the future of zoos lies? Is it possible that enrichment practices could neutralize the moral repugnance of keeping animals in enclosures? Will it always be a reachable dream for only some zoos, and pie in the sky for the others?

The most logical place to look for answers was the Oregon Zoo. Portland's park not only has a long history of pioneering in the field of enrichment, its director, Tony Vecchio, is the man credited with turning around the once-troubled Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence in the 1990s. He is known as a quiet maverick, unafraid to rock the boat.

I saw Vecchio as soon as the Oregon Zoo opened one Monday morning in June. But he didn't want to talk, not yet anyway. He first wanted me to see enrichment in action, so he hooked me up with David Shepherd- son. Rail thin, with wispy blond hair and a red-hued beard, Shepherdson is the self-effacing guru of the enrichment movement; as a conservation-program scientist with the Oregon Zoo, he has been quantifying the happiness and mental health of captive animals for nearly 20 years. There is almost no one else like him in the zoo world.

Shepherdson doesn't actually toss the buckets of frozen mackerel to the polar bears or spray strange scents around the tiger exhibit. But he does go over every detail of such methods with the keepers, marshaling volunteers to record the reactions animals have to such stimuli. He then studies the data to decipher what they all mean. His mission, as ambitious as it is straightforward, is "to improve the welfare of all the animals."

Over three days, Shepherdson shows off the hundreds of ways zoo staffers keep their animals engaged.

ONE MORNING, WE ACCOMPANY CHENDRA, an 11-year-old Asian elephant, as she leaves her enclosure to stroll around the zoo grounds with her two keepers. It's 7:40 on a cool, damp Portland summer day -- early enough to ensure that the powerful if compact elephant won't be crossing paths with any visitors. The peacocks are screeching, keepers are hosing down exhibits, and as Chendra softly pads by the tiger exhibit, one striped cat who has seen it all before barely swivels his head in the elephant's direction. Chendra keeps going, and after 15 minutes of a fast-paced walk, she is allowed to make her way into a pasture of knee-high grass and clover, where she can rip up and devour the succulent vegetation. For a time, there are only soft sounds in the air the cleaving of the grass, followed by muffled munching.

Her "enrichment" is deceptively simple. Untold hours of training have come before to ensure that Chendra will stay with her keepers and listen to their directions. Her stroll out of her exhibit is rare in zoos, which increasingly separate keepers from elephants because of the serious risk contact with these huge animals poses. The walk, perceived as downright dangerous by many zoo professionals but nothing more than a matter of understanding and training here, may help stave off serious health problems that beset captive elephants -- obesity and life-threatening joint and foot problems. Psychologically, the benefit is incalculable. "The world opens up for her," says one of Chendra's keepers.

IN MY TIME WITH SHEPHERDSON, I SEE mandrills being given papier-mache globes that they rip apart to get at the seeds and nuts stuffed inside. Polar bears are called inside the building that houses their night cages, where one by one they sit on command, hold a well-furred paw up to an iron grate separating them from a keeper, and open their mouths wide for inspection. River otters that receive Gatorade jugs filled with silvery fish spend several excited minutes figuring out how to extricate the delicacies. And a male elephant uses his trunk to spray-paint abstract art on large canvases (which are sold to help fund the zoo).

The animals aren't just being kept busy, they are entering a new dimension, psychologically speaking. "The best of enrichment is when you really fundamentally change the animal's environment," Shepherdson says. When an animal hunts for food in his exhibit instead of simply being fed, when he can dig up a pile of dirt or chase and catch a moving target, he has some control over his own world for the first time in a life spent in captivity. "That's important to all of us," Shepherdson reasons, "very important. A human psychologist would say the same thing."

Throughout the zoo, in the cluttered, often odoriferous back offices of the staff members, thick charts are filled out daily and kept on file, recording an activity, how much it stimulated the animal, and what exactly the animal's reaction was.

Here, keepers and curators -- some of whom carry advanced degrees along with pooper-scoopers -- work closely with Shepherdson, discussing the ways that the "psychological space" of an exhibit may be increased even when the physical space cannot.

The systematic intellectual effort expended on animal happiness is something new. "When I was a zookeeper," Vecchio says as we finally sit down to talk in an office bursting with stuffed-animal toys, "everything was about trying to get the animals to reproduce. Now the new focus is moving toward enrichment."

Zoo historian Rory Browne, the associate dean of freshmen at Harvard University, agrees, saying that zoos in the past had a tendency to view animals as "genetic units." They focused on a strategy of "moving those genetic units around in order to produce more valuable genetic units." That is changing. "I think partly through the influence of the public, partly through the influence of behavioral studies, and partly through the type keepers we now have in zoos -- the educated and animal-friendly workforce -- there has been a great drive to respond to some of the criticisms of zoos in the past as being places where animals have just been treated like genetic parcels," Browne says.

While no zoo wants to see its charges suffer, enrichment is labor-intensive and costly. Vecchio says that staff compensation -- pay and benefits -- is the single largest item in his budget, accounting for about 50 percent. Because most zoos are financially strapped, with barely enough staff to carry out feeding and cleaning, there usually isn't much left over for frills. And Vecchio says that "in most zoos, enrichment is still considered an extra."

Vecchio made a decision when he came to the Oregon Zoo 6 1/2 years ago to deepen the institution's commitment to enrichment. He wanted to ensure that the approach would be considered as vital and necessary to an animal's welfare as food and medicine. "Here, it is interwoven into the fabric of a zookeeper's job," he says. "To talk about skipping enrichment would be like saying we're going to cut out feeding."

More than that, he says, "enrichment is not just clever toys for the animals to play with when someone has time; it has to involve a cultural, a philosophical shift in thinking."

Devra Kleiman, a research associate with Smithsonian National Zoological Park and a longtime zoo insider, keys in on that point. "Enrichment is happening at zoos," Kleiman says, "but they're just applying techniques. Shepherdson is doing research, and not everyone seems to understand the difference."

Vecchio points out that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 galvanized zoos, setting a higher standard for acquiring animals. Instead of pulling animals from the wild, the institutions were forced to figure out how to breed them in captivity. On the other hand, on the issue of well-being, he says, the federal Animal Welfare Act "is a lower bar"; it outlines only a minimum standard of care for adequate shelter, water, food, sanitation, and veterinary care. The short, vaguely written rules don't come close to prodding the kind of progressive care that the public expects.

JOHN LINEHAN IS THE DIRECTOR of Zoo New England. A compassionate man well-schooled in animal welfare, Linehan is also a believer in enrichment. He's even sent some of his keepers to the enrichment "school" Shepherdson runs through the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Linehan does not want me to visit Little Joe, who is still on the premises, but in the secure back holding pens of the tropical forest, not on exhibit. (Little Joe is still in Boston for a number of reasons, chief among them because other zoos are fearful he could escape their exhibits, too.) It's not an optimal situation, and Linehan is struggling to correct it.

The zoo director does want me to see some of his enrichment care in action. One sunny June day, he takes me to the African wild dog exhibit to watch "blood-sicles" -- chunks of frozen meat juices -- being tossed to the excited animals.

Franklin Park does not employ a fulltime or even part-time enrichment specialist, though it does have a committee that works on the matter. "We have animals categorized into 'must,' 'should,' 'could,'" Linehan explains. "The law requires that primates have enrichment, for example. And then 'should' might be something like the capybara [the world's largest rodent]. And then 'could' might be something like the ducks."

If you want to know how much enrichment is possible at a given zoo, follow the money. Linehan has about $7 million a year to run Franklin Park, while the Oregon Zoo has $23 million to spend.

But in Portland, supporting the zoo is the thing to do; it's the institution everyone wants to be associated with. In Boston, the zoo struggles as a second-class citizen behind longtime stalwarts like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Science, even the New England Aquarium.

Ultimately, society will have to judge whether it's all worth it or if it would be easier to just shut zoos down. But as wild places shrink around the world, zoos truly have become modern arks -- in the case of Siberian tigers or California condors, for instance, there are more animals held in captivity than there are left roaming in the wild. Zoos are saving animals whose numbers are dwindling. They provide incredible stores of up-close knowledge of animals we are racing to understand. Zoo medicine is reaching out to the field and saving animals that will never know the confines of a cage. And zoos connect us with nature in a way that films never can. Richard Lattis of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a former president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, says that the animals in good zoos are "inspirational icons" that motivate people to support conservation. "The Bronx Zoo," he points out, "is a forest in an urban environment, where our goal is to help people who have little experience with wildlife dedicate themselves to an appreciation of living animals as well as a concern for our earth."

As to whether zoos are worth it -- even in the face of staggering conservation and enrichment costs, plenty of us would say yes. Yes, but only so long as that last piece of the puzzle -- animal welfare -- is securely put in place.

Vicki Constantine Croke, the author of The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos -- Past, Present and Future, has just completed The Panda Hunter, about Ruth Harkness, who brought the first giant panda to the West in 1936. Random House will publish it next year. Her e-mail address is

"The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future," by Vicki Croke
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