Captive management of big cats is part of a strategy to keep endangered species from becoming extinct. It also provides a source of education and inspiration to zoo visitors and helps us study what these cats need to survive and thrive. What follows is from an interview with John Burkitt of Tiger Touch, a non-profit organization that keeps cats.
The Four Types of FitnessEdit
Once zoos were terrible places for big cats. Their needs were poorly understood, and therefore poorly met. Today we understand that there are four types of fitness, all equally important. Physical Fitness is more than basic life support. Animals evolved in a complex environment, and meeting their whole range of needs makes their life longer and better. Mental Fitness is as important in captivity as it is in the wild. It promotes natural social behavior within and between species and reduces neurotic behaviors such as pacing and self-injury. Emotional Fitness is the cornerstone of a humane, trusting partnership between man and animal. When we bring life into the world, we owe it happiness and contentment. Moral Fitness is a clear understanding of rules and expectations by man and animal that promotes trust, minimizes stress, reduces accidents, and helps cooperation.
Ideally, safety is guaranteed for the animals, their staff, and the visiting public. The animals are protected as well as possible against items thrown over the fence that may injure the cats or be eaten. When big cats eat the wrong sort of objects, such as toys or bottle fragments, it causes potentially deadly blockages of the intestines. The staff is protected by the use of "lockouts" and "air locks". "Lockouts" are areas where big cats can be confined while someone performs maintenance on their living area. It is the only safe way to remove wastes, cut grass, remove foreign objects, or repair fixtures. "Air Locks" are small chambers with a door on each end that allow people to enter and exit a cat enclosure without having an opening clear to the outside at any one moment. People come in the outer door, close it behind them, then open the inner door to enter the cat enclosure. At no time can a cat push past the keeper and escape. Guard rails around certain exhibits keep visitors at least five feet (1.8 meters) away from the animal's outer fence at all times. This prevents people from being tempted to touch animals through the mesh or bars and get injured. Such injuries are more often fatal to the cat than to the visitor since most states require the animal to be killed and tested for rabies if the victim refuses to take precautionary rabies vaccination shots. Zoo visitors that follow the rules are completely safe. One less obvious safety feature of zoos and animal parks are the off-hours security systems that protect the animals against nighttime intruders. Motion sensors, infrared cameras, and perimeter fences prevent people from disturbing the animals after hours. Finally, the animals are usually confined to smaller areas during off hours, and only released into their large enclosures shortly before opening time.
Species Survival PlansEdit
One function of zoos is to provide safe places where endangered animals can breed. To be effective in producing healthy cats that are genetically diverse (born to unrelated parents), zoos will often ship animals long distances to find mates that would make a good match. If you let closely related cats have offspring together, their young would be considered inbred, which means they don't have a healthy mix of different backgrounds in their physical makeup. Inbred animals are prone to be sick or even die. Computer technology helps zoos be sure which animals would make the best mates for each other and avoid inbreeding.
Animals used in a Species Survival Plan are sometimes taken out of the public viewing areas for a private, less stressful area to breed and care for their offspring in the first critical weeks. Usually you can tell if animals on display in a zoo are involved in an SSP because there will be a sign posted on their enclosure.
One of the most important differences in zoos today from zoos long ago is that they are more than just living museums. They are also valuable partners in the battle to save endangered species.
Food has to be wholesome and free from disease and parasites. It may be meat, a prepared diet such as ZuPreem or Mazuri, or a combination of both. Food is served raw to prevent nutrient loss from cooking. Additives make up for the loss of calcium and micronutrients available in regular prey. Finally as part of good animal husbandry, food is individually prepared for each animal based on weight control and medication needs.
Like all other animals in captivity, zoo animals require occasional trips to the vet. The veterinarians that handle zoo animals are specially trained in exotic medicine, the diseases and conditions of animals not usually kept as pets. Veterinary care usually is done at the zoo in a special health care building that has the special equipment needed to fill cavities in a tiger's teeth or perform surgery on a lion.
When, for one reason or another, the parents of young big cats cannot raise their own offspring, the cubs and kittens are sent to a nursery where specially trained zoo staff and volunteers provide them with the food, stimulation, and affection. Young cats of all species cannot properly pass solid wastes on their own. A warm, wet washrag or sponge is used to wipe the backside of kittens and cubs to stimulate them to pass wastes, something they usually do in the wild when their mother cleans them with her tongue. Proper nursing is especially important: cubs and kittens are never given milk while they are lying on their back. This can cause pneumonia. The milk given to cats is different than the milk given to human children in a number of ways. Zoo personnel know the right way to mix milk for the different species of large and small cats in their care. Temperature is carefully controlled since these young animals are not as good at controlling their body temperature as are adults.
Keeping animals happy as well as healthy is a challenge. The best way is a combination of several things: physical interaction with others of its own kind or specially-trained human companions, desirable features in the enclosure such as swimming pools and ledges for perching and sleeping, and toys to play with. Sometimes food is hidden about or put on ropes where it can be jerked away to stimulate chase, hunt, and play behaviors and reduce boredom. Many zoo animals are fond of visitors and develop routines to impress the people that come to see them. Large, natural enclosures give the animals more freedom of movement and encourage physical activity.
While most modern zoos do not teach animals to perform "tricks", they do train animals to respond to certain commands to make them safer to handle, move and examine. This training emphasizes rewards for good behavior rather than punishment for bad behavior. Using the reward system not only makes training easier and more humane, it avoids the ever-present danger that an angry cat may find a chance to lash out at its tormentor. That only needs to happen once briefly for tragedy to occur.
End of Life IssuesEdit
Although it is unpleasant to think about, death is a part of life. When a decision is made by the zoo staff that a certain cat is in too much pain to have a good life, the life of that cat is humanely ended. The phrase put to sleep or put down is not accurate and does not confer the dignity that usually accompanies the act. Zookeepers almost always experience grief when one of their long-term friends dies. Whenever possible, someone the cat loves is allowed to be with them as the drug is administered. This special drug is designed to calm the cat and lull it to sleep before death occurs. After death has been certified by the veterinarian, a necropsy (animal autopsy) is performed to determine the exact cause of the animal's illness or injury. This information is used to help protect other animals. Many zoos, and most sanctuaries and animal parks, have special plots where beloved animals are laid to rest. These are rarely open to the public. Animals that are not buried are usually cremated (burned) for health reasons or used to provide skeletons and skins for educational use at the zoo or in museums and universities.