Zoos Drive Animals Crazy; Fun for People, but Not for Animals
In the mid-1990s, Gus, a polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, alarmed visitors by compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool, sometimes for 12 hours a day. He stalked children from his underwater window, prompting zoo staff to put up barriers to keep the frightened children away from his predatory gaze. Gus’s neuroticism earned him the nickname “the bipolar bear,” a dose of Prozac, and $25,000 worth of behavioral therapy.
Gus is one of the many mentally unstable animals featured in Laurel Braitman’s new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. The book features a dog that jumps out of a fourth floor apartment, a shin-biting miniature donkey, gorillas that sob, and compulsively masturbating walruses.* Much of the animal madness Braitman describes is caused by humans forcing animals to live in unnatural habitats, and the suffering that ensues is on display most starkly in zoos. “Zoos as institutions are deeply problematic,” Braitman told me. Gus, for example, was forced to live in an enclosure that is 0.00009 percent of the size his range would have been in his natural habitat. “It’s impossible to replicate even a slim fraction of the kind of life polar bears have in the wild,” Braitman writes.
Many animals cope with unstimulating or small environments through stereotypic behavior, which, in zoological parlance, is a repetitive behavior that serves no obvious purpose, such as pacing, bar biting, and Gus’ figure-eight swimming. Trichotillomania (repetitive hair plucking) and regurgitation and reingestation (the practice of repetitively vomiting and eating the vomit) are also common in captivity. According to Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, authors of Animals Make Us Human, these behaviors, “almost never occur in the wild.” In captivity, these behaviors are so common that they have a name: “zoochosis,” or psychosis caused by confinement.
The disruption of family or pack units for the sake of breeding is another stressor in zoos, especially in species that form close-knit groups, such as gorillas and elephants. Zoo breeding programs, which are overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Animal Exchange Database, move animals around the country when they identify a genetically suitable mate. Tom, a gorilla featured in Animal Madness, was moved hundreds of miles away because he was a good genetic match for another zoo’s gorilla. At the new zoo, he was abused by the other gorillas and lost a third of his body weight. Eventually, he was sent back home, only to be sent to another zoo again once he was nursed back to health. When his zookeepers visited him at his new zoo, he ran toward them sobbing and crying, following them until visitors complained that the zookeepers were “hogging the gorilla.” While a strong argument can be made for the practice of moving animals for breeding purposes in the case of endangered species, animals are also moved because a zoo has too many of one species. The Milwaukee Zoo writes on its website that exchanging animals with other zoos “helps to keep their collection fresh and exciting.”
Drugs are another common treatment for stereotypic behavior. “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried,” Braitman told me. She explained that pharmaceuticals are attractive to zoos because “they are a hell of a lot less expensive than re-doing your $2 million exhibit or getting rid of that problem creature.” But good luck getting some hard numbers on the practice. The AZA and the Smithsonian National Zoo declined to be interviewed for this article, and many zookeepers sign non-disclosure agreements. Braitman also found the industry hushed on this issue, likely because “finding out that the gorillas, badgers, giraffes, belugas, or wallabies on the other side of the glass are taking Valium, Prozac, or antipsychotics to deal with their lives as display animals is not exactly heartwarming news.” We do know, however, that the animal pharmaceutical industry is booming. In 2010, it did almost $6 billion in sales in the United States.
I actually met Gus, it was one of the finally straws for me. His life sentence broke my heart! Please boycott zoos!