Zoo animal welfare boosted by environmental enrichment, positive reinforcement training

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Gail Laule
Gail Laule

It may sound like a dream to some people—never having to work, being provided with shelter, nutritious food, and good health care—but life in a zoo can be just as harsh as life in the wild.

Zoo animals may be confined to a sterile, unchanging environment; they live in unnatural and sometimes acrimonious social situations; they have no choice about the type of food they eat or when they eat. As a result of these difficult conditions, many animals become bored or stressed and engage in stereotypic behaviors.

"We must recognize, acknowledge, and address the cost of captivity because animals do pay a price for giving up freedom," said Gail Laule, a behavioral consultant who works with zoos and aquariums to improve animal welfare through positive reinforcement training and enrichment programs.

"I am suggesting that a high level of animal welfare is a direct result of how effectively we mitigate those costs," Laule said during her presentation at the 2002 AVMA Animal Welfare Forum in Milwaukee, Oct. 11.

Laule and her partner, Tim Desmond, run a consulting company, Active Environments, that has developed techniques to improve captive animal welfare including, protected contact, a positive reinforcement-based program for managing elephants, cooperative feeding, and a method to boost positive social interaction among animals.

Positive reinforcement, improved welfare
Laule stressed that using positive reinforcement training instead of negative reinforcement training can greatly enhance welfare.

"It allows animals to voluntarily cooperate; it also means they can choose to 'say' no," Laule said. "My job as a trainer is to make it worth their while (to 'say' yes)."

In most cases, trainers use food as a treat for animals that perform the desired behavior, which gives animals a chance to work for their food as they do in the wild.

Laule recommended that keepers use desensitization methods to help animals overcome fear or discomfort during husbandry and training procedures such as injections, confinement, or health examinations.

"There are a lot of things we do to animals for their health and best interest that are unnatural, scary, and stressful," she said. "We can use desensitization to help them cope with that."

She also recommended that trainers use positive reinforcement during feeding times to encourage dominant animals to allow subdominant animals to get their fair share of food.

These techniques allow animals to be willing participants in these essential parts of daily life, help to reduce fear and aggression, and provide intellectual stimulation, Laule explained.

Natural, healthy environments
Providing animals with dynamic environments that promote natural behaviors is also important. Laule suggested several enrichment strategies, including:
  • Providing climbing structures, hiding places, bedding materials, and a variety of objects that the animals can manipulate
  • Making feeding more interesting by providing a variety of foods, preparing foods in different ways, providing natural food items, or hiding food items
  • Introducing sensory stimuli such as ice or the scents of other animals
  • Creating natural social groups or housing multiple species together
  • Giving animals something productive to do
  • Encouraging positive interaction between humans and other animals.