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    Carnivores in zoos react positively to improvements to their enclosures, new research suggests

    Posted 20 December 2023

    Two sealions interact underwater.

    Carnivores in zoos react positively when their homes have received some TLC, new research suggests.

    According to a new study, the welfare of animals like seals, sea lions and jaguars is enhanced when improvements are made to their enclosures.

    The research – which involved academics including Harper Adams University’s Dr Ellen Williams – was led by Nottingham Trent University and also included work from the University of Bolton and the University Lodz in Poland.

    It revealed how carnivores became significantly more active and engaged more with their enclosures when given additional enrichment.

    This included different types of feeding, new structures, the introduction of manipulable objects and techniques to trigger their smell senses.

    Carnivores – meat eaters – are often considered to be challenging to maintain with good welfare in zoos, and they are sometimes susceptible to behaviour indicative of poor welfare, such as pacing.

    And some species even show poor reproduction in captivity.

    Activity, play and interaction with the environment are all considered to be measures of positive welfare in zoo-housed species.

    Lead researcher Dr Samantha Ward, a scientist at NTU’s school of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, said: “Zoos have shown significant advancements in welfare provisioning in recent years and recognise the need for monitoring and improving welfare.

    “This is the first study to quantify positive behaviours in zoo-housed carnivores and shows that positive welfare can be achieved if the appropriate husbandry is provided.”

     “It provides a strong message about the importance and effectiveness of environmental enrichment not only in reducing negative or unwanted behaviours in zoo-housed carnivores, but also in promoting positive behaviours and optimising animal welfare.

    “It is important to assess animal behaviour using positive and negative indicators for a more informed view of the viability of zoos in optimising the welfare of carnivores.

     “This will help us to more reliably track progress in welfare.”

    And Dr Williams, a specialist in zoo animal behaviour and welfare, added: “To ensure that within zoos we provide environments in which animals can thrive, and not just survive, we need to be assessing indicators of positive welfare, alongside those more traditional indicators of negative welfare.

    "This study is a first very important step in measuring positive welfare in zoo carnivores. There were some really important behavioural changes seen when animals were provided with additional environmental enrichment, which is so important to consider in their management in zoos."

    The researchers analysed data from previous studies, looking at the behaviour across dozens of species of carnivore and more than 200 individual animals.

    They found that when animals were given additional enrichment, the time they spent being active increased significantly, from a quarter more to as much as four times more.

    According to the study, brown fur seals, Australian sea lions and jaguar were among the most active when provided with additional enrichment.

    The researchers also found that interactions with enclosures, such as foraging, scratching and climbing, increased with enclosure improvements – most significantly for sea lions, spectacled bears and fishing cats.

    Additionally, with the right enrichment, polar bears and Eurasian lynx became more playful as they got older, while red foxes and brown bears became more active with age.

    The study is published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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