Earlier this month the Critter Club took a field trip to the Racine Zoo for a program on careers with animals in a zoo. After the program we spent quite a bit of time walking around and looking at the various animals in their exhibits.
When we came to the bears I started reminiscing about going to the Milwaukee County Zoo as a kid with my family. I happened to mention that we used to bring bags of marshmallows with us and entertained ourselves by throwing them to the bears. The kids were amazed that the zoo allowed this, and it's a good reminder of just how far animal welfare has come. Nowadays any zoo prohibits members of the public bringing food in to feed the animals. And when you think about how many families visit a zoo on any given day, it clearly is not a good idea for bears to eat who knows how many pounds of marshmallows.
The Milwaukee County Zoo was one of the early adopters of exhibits that attempted to provide animals with a more natural appearing habitat, rather than housing them in cages. Over the years zoos have also become more aware of providing for their animals mental and emotional needs, in addition to their physical needs. Good zoos have animal enrichment programs which allow animals to fulfill these needs.
It makes sense when you think about the fact that in the wild an animal would spend most of it's waking time searching for food and some animals would also be searching for or building living space. Captive animals have all of their needs provided for them, but they still have the instincts and habits in place that can cause extreme boredom and even depression if they aren't given an outlet for them.
Zoos make an effort to constantly make changes to an animals environment, provide interactive materials as toys, and feed in such a way as to require the animal to hunt or forage their food. Really great video and photo examples of these types of activities in zoos can be found at the Honolulu Zoo's website.
Zoos aren't the only organizations to make such changes to better the welfare of their animals. In my next blog I'll talk about some of the changes that can be seen in animal shelters.