Oxford scientists have found that carnivores have welfare problems in zoos because they are deprived of their naturally large territories, rather than because they are deprived of their abilities to hunt, as was previously thought.
After analysing data for 35 carnivore species, Dr Ros Clubb and Dr Georgia Mason from the University of Oxford found that polar bears, lions and other animals that would naturally roam very widely appear less able to cope with captivity than more stay-at-home species. These widely-ranging carnivores are noticeably most prone to welfare problems when kept in zoos such as repetitive back and forth pacing, and infant mortality. These results could explain why pacing polar bears are such a common sight in zoos, where they are usually kept in enclosures over a million times smaller than their natural ranging areas.
'We were surprised by the results because until now we had always thought that not being able to hunt was the biggest problem for zoo carnivores,' says Dr Ros Clubb. 'Because of this, zoos have concentrated on stimulating hunting-like behaviours to try to improve their welfare. But our results suggest that it's even more important to give these animals more space, or the day-to-day changes in environment they'd experience if they were ranging naturally.'
The researchers are calling for zoos either to improve how these wide-ranging species are kept, or to phase them out in favour of animals better suited to captive life. 'It's vital to get this right, as these animals are in double jeopardy,' says Dr Mason. 'Wide-ranging carnivores are particularly hard to conserve in reserves in their natural habitat – so it's especially worrying that they are also most prone to welfare problems in captivity.'
This release is based on a paper by Mason and Clubb published on 1 October 2003 in Nature magazine
Georgia Mason's research group in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University, uses scientific approaches to objectively assess and improve the welfare problems of a range of animals, from caged bears in Thailand to rats and mice in research laboratories.
This study was funded by an Oxford University Pirie-Reid Scholarship, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW), the International Zoo Veterinary Group, the Cotswold Wildlife Park, and the following zoos: Bristol, Chester, Edinburgh, Marwell, Paignton and Welsh Mountain.
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