The Bear That Could Pace

I recently visited the Large Animal Clinical Science’s web page hosted by the  Western College of Veterinary Medicine (Canada). While scrolling down the page, a link to an applied ethology resource caught my attention.  Behavioral science resources are now more commonly made available for veterinary faculty and students, but often these resources are limited to the discussion of domesticated species. Applied behavior as it relates to exotic, zoo animal, and alternative livestock may be neglected to some degree.  If anything, animal health programs may dedicate more educational resources to the emerging field of behavioral genomics.

As I perused the topics I came across some information concerning the  manifestation of stereotypic behavior in zoo carnivores and primates.  The topic was was addressed in some detail and the information was relatively current.  Nothing  I read would surprise the zoo professional. In general, stereotypies in these taxa have received much attention in zoo science and applied animal welfare publications.   Again, this is pretty common knowledge.  I don’t argue that efforts should be made to mitigate aberrant behavior.  Many investigators have examined the possible etiologies of stereotypic pacing.  Not everyone agrees on what causes it or how to address it.  But it may be just as important to consider how serious these aberrant behaviors are in the context of a larger picture -a more comprehensive evaluation of an individual animal’s quality of life.

At one extreme laboratory animals have exhibited self-mutilation and reduced reproductive success.  However, zoos were the first to examine captivity-induced stereotypic behavior and they were the first living institutions to address this concern.  Enrichment programs have reduced stereotypies in the species that have been the subject of intense study by more than 50%.  Most of these subjects include the intelligent charismatic species such as bears, elephants, and primates.

Zoos, aquariums and marine parks provide quite the hospitable environment for their collection animals.  If we consider the quality of life of captive born and reared animals compared to the challenges facing their wild counterparts, our perspectives and attitudes may change.

Wild animals face  increasingly compromised natural environments as a consequence of habitat encroachment and fragmentation which exacerbate the daily struggles to find food and mates, raise offspring and defend territories. Captivity starts to look pretty good.

I remember that I used to bite my nails before big exams, but no one ever called social services. I don’t dismiss that fact that some captive animals may exhibit aberrant behavior, but I also know that we don’t home school children with restless leg syndrome just because they are known to tap their feet incessantly in school.  They may be more of a distraction to others than a risk to themselves.  We can’t eliminate environmental stressors altogether.

In my opinion zoo life is a pretty good deal.  The arranged marriage issue is the only thing that I would want to negotiate, but I think that animals are much less discriminating in regards to choosing mates. In captivity the  mate selection for both the sire and dam consists of unrelated, well fed, conspecifics in good body condition, not to mention that available partners are most likely to be pathogen free.   In the wild, you’d have to sort through a lot of goldfish before you find some Koi.  In captivity the studbook keeper serves as one heck of a matchmaker.   I digress….

I’ve seen a more than a few bears pace in my time and I’m really quite impressed with the extensive amount of research that has been conducted on stereotypic behavior in an effort to improve the psychological well-being of these animals.  I also remember how often keepers inadvertently may have reinforced this behavior in an attempt to stop it.  I may have done it myself. It’s amazing how an animal may appear to be in a “zone” or stupor as it repetitively follows the same figure eight pattern as part of an apparent  appetitive behavior.  However, they may snap out of it quite readily and come to life, if you will.  They may smell their keeper or see or hear them in front of the exhibit.  I often wondered if this pacing routine was just a ploy to get the attention of a caregiver.  Polar bears may not look like they are always thinking, but I was always thinking they are.

I mentioned behavioral genomics earlier and wanted to direct your attention to the following article:  Genomics Meets Ethology I have been interested in genetic predisposition to communicable pathogen resistance in zoo animal populations, but I also have been very interested in a genetic predisposition to stress tolerance and perhaps aberrant behaviors such as stereotypies.  It may be very controversial to exclude individuals from participation in breeding programs because of pacing behavior or other unwanted behaviors, but it has been looked at with much greater frequency in domestic livestock.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

Photo by J.Schaul ( view with Int. Expl.

One thought on “The Bear That Could Pace

  1. Thanks for inviting me to read your blog! It will take some time to get through your archives, but everyone of the posts is fascinating. I love how you range around your topics bringing together all kinds of ideas and issues. Makes me really wish I was a zookeeper!

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