Behavioral enrichment

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

Preventing captive animals from suffering terminal boredom has been a primary concern of zookeepers since ancient times. Excessively bored animals not only become listless and uninteresting to crowds, but also develop self-destructive behavior. For centuries–after tossing prisoners to ferocious beasts fell out of vogue–the antidote was obliging animals to earn their food by performing.

That approach too has fallen from favor, as zoos have moved toward naturalistic exhibits in an emphasis upon showing animals acting as they would in the wild. But even the best naturalistic settings are too small to offer intelligent species much variety in stimulus. Thus behavioral enrichment programs are again borrowing from the past. Since 1991, Los Angeles zoo volunteers have been making animals earn their meals again: primates must find whole fruit and oatmeal hidden beneath hay and in nooks and crannies of their quarters, polar bears must extricate fish from floating blocks of ice, and hippos forage for greenery dumped into their wading pond, instead of being piled at the side. At the Toledo Zoo meanwhile, head veterinarian Timothy Reichard notes improved health and behavior in animals who have been taught to do various tricks to facilitate frequent physical examinations. The training program, now two years old, seems to stimulate the animals’ interest in their surroundings. Reichard’s staff began by training great apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas; went to monkeys when that succeeded; and have since progressed to training
elephants, bears, sea lions, red pandas, a zebra, and a giraffe. About 40 other zoos have requested details of the Toledo Zoo techniques.

The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle plans to open a $7.7 million “Northern Trail” exhibit this fall that will combine the naturalistic and behavioral enrichment approaches. The plans call for mountain goats to lick water from rocks moistened by hidden pipes, while bears are to fish live salmon from an artificial stream and harvest salmonberries from bushes cultivated in their cages. The latter idea may prove problematic; attempts at including actual fruit-and-flower-producing shrubbery in naturalistic exhibits elsewhere have historically failed because zoo animals tend to destroy the plants out of boredom.

Zoo Euthanasia: The Steve Graham legacy

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

Zoo Euthanasia: The Steve Graham legacy
Detroit Zoo director saw surplus crunch coming

DETROIT, Michigan–No one ever more directly addressed the question of what to do with surplus zoo animals than former Detroit Zoo executive director Steve Graham–and no one has ever been more vilified for it. The target of frequent exposes, letter campaigns led by the Fund for Animals, almost continuous picketing by as many as 150 people at a time throughout his nine-year tenure, and several staff revolts, Graham finally quit in February 1991 following a head-on clash with the Detroit City Council, whose auditor, Roger Short, warned him on July 2, 1990, that euthanizing costly animals without council permission amounted to unauthorized destruction of city property. Graham performed several controversial euthanasias anyway, and in August 1990 poured gasoline on his own figurative funeral pyre by calling his mostly Afro-American staff “monkeys”–in a city whose population is 76% Afro-American, whose Afro-American mayor, Coleman Young, had been his most visible defender.

Graham was no diplomat, although in his first few years in Detroit he tried, authoring numerous long and essentially friendly letters to his most ardent critics, trying to explain his many controversial actions. Some never forgave Graham for taking plastic toys away from the primates and elephants during exhibition hours, because he wanted the public to see animals acting as they would in the wild. (The toys were returned at night.)

Others blistered Graham for trying to increase the zoo animals’ freedom of movement during the winter by leaving them outdoors with the onset of cold weather, to grow longer fur and become accustomed to the changing conditions. The weather changed faster than some tropical species could adapt. Frozen capybaras were found every winter from 1986 through 1988. Other animals purportedly killed or injured by cold weather included kangaroos, swans, and pelicans. “We have found animals dead in a frozen condition on mornings after a cold night,” Graham admitted, “but an animal who dies on a cold night from whatever cause will freeze by morning. When such animals are necropsied, we find that some other problem caused the death…Other members of their groups did not ‘freeze to death’, so that should be an indication that there was something physiologically wrong with those who did die.” Eventually Graham cut the winter-related death toll to near zero by changing breeding schedules so that tropical animals didn’t give birth during the winter months.

The April 1990 drowning of a chimpanzee in a protective moat brought more outrage. Graham had used the last 10 of a once large herd of wild but common African sheep called aoudads in a terminal nutrition study, fed the remains to the zoo’s carnivores, and added their climbing rock to a new naturalistic chimp area. He kept the moat, over objections from the International Primate Protection League, because of concern for liability if a chimp ever escaped. The use of the aoudads brought up another complaint. Graham had introduced a farm exhibit. After each zoo season, cows and pigs were slaughtered to feed carnivorous animals. Zoogoers objected to the slaughter of animals who had been given names and been petted all summer by children. Graham responded with an edict that no animal at the zoo should be named, to discourage emotional identification with animals by either public or staff.

Introduced culling by euthanasia

Graham caught the most flak, however, for insisting that surplus animals should be humanely euthanized if they could not be sent to other zoos accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. From day one, he bucked prevailing practice by refusing to sell animals to dealers, roadside zoos, and canned hunts, which he called “shooting galleries–out of the question for reputable zoos.” In 1982 Graham sold 30 crab-eating macaques to biomedical researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, and he advertised five Japanese macaques in a research newsletter in 1987, but he eventually became critical of the use of zoo animals in laboratories, as well. “Even if an animal is placed in a behavioral, non-invasive research study,” Graham wrote in 1991, “most research projects are measured in months or at most a few years. What then happens to an animal such as a primate, who
can live up to 50 years?” And sanctuaries, Graham barked, are just no-kill shelters for wildlife, pointlessly keeping geriatric beasts far beyond their natural lifespans in crowded conditions more unnatural than those of zoos.

Revamping the Detroit Zoo surplus animal policy topped Graham’s job description when he was hired in 1982. His predecessor, Gunther Voss, quit after being accused of taking kickbacks from animal dealers who allegedly used the zoo as a wildlife warehouse. Graham brought to Detroit a background uniquely combining zoo experience with humane work. He had previously managed two other zoos–and been president of the Antietam Humane Society, in  Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.

“We had a contract with a veterinarian to euthanize,” Graham told Ann Sweeney of the Detroit News. “I went over there one day and found a 10-year-old kid killing the puppies and kittens. I fired the vet, and for three months, I did it myself, humanely.”

Graham learned to euthanize mothers with newborn litters by lethally injecting the mother first, then injecting each of the babies as they still clung comfortably to their mother’s warm body. As a humane society director, Graham was an outspoken advocate of the needle instead of the gas chambers and decompression chambers that were then the norm for euthanasia. Nearly 20 years later, the crusty Graham still came close to tears when recounting his euthanasia experience. But he came away from it believing humane euthanasia could be a viable and essential option for reducing zoo surplus.
Graham’s first public act at the Detroit Zoo was to euthanize three popular but aging Siberian tigers whose genetic history was too uncertain to permit their use as breeding stock. A zoo patron unsuccessfully sued him over that action. When Graham euthanized two healthy Siberian tigers in 1988 and 1989, also because they were unsuitable for breeding, the USDA reviewed the Detroit Zoo’s permit to keep endangered species. Meanwhile, Graham thinned the aoudad collection, numbering 76 when he arrived, who so densely populated their quarters that newborns were repeatedly trampled to death. He euthanized other animals as well: 282 in all during his tenure, 29% of all the animals who were removed from the collection for any reason. Among the euthanized animals, 165 were common hooved stock, whom most zoos quietly cull each winter to feed carnivores. Most of the rest were put down due to old age and/or poor health, but after the first tiger euthanasias, Graham was tagged needle-happy.

Cut zoo death rate in half

Hardly anyone ever noticed that in the nine years Graham ran the Detroit Zoo, only 2,032 animals died of any cause, compared with 4,038 deaths during the preceding decade–even as the zoo population rose from 1,432 animals at Graham’s arrival to 2,700 at his departure. He cut annual mammal mortality from 34% to 14%, cut bird mortality from 15% to 3%, and cut reptile and amphibian mortality from 40% to 1%. The difference came largely because Graham  culled the oldest animals, keeping as young and vigorous a collection as possible.

This in turn led to the accusation, voiced by Doris Dixon of the Fund, that, “Graham wants mommy, daddy, baby for his  exhibits,” and therefore bred animals needlessly. Instead of denying it, Graham rambled to reporters about the “considerable educational experience” for zoogoers in seeing “the mother-infant bond.” He rarely sterilized Detroit Zoo animals, instead relying upon sexual segregation for birth control, because he wanted the collection to be a repository of genetic diversity.

As far back as 1976, Graham warned fellow zookeepers that, “Surplus animals are the greatest problem facing zoos today.” While Margaret Shivener of Defenders of Animal Rights charged Graham with “irresponsible overbreeding,” Graham and Robert Wagner, then executive director of the New York Zoological Society, pushed AAZPA to adopt policies to discourage breeding except to preserve endangered species, provide collection replacements, and feed
carnivores their natural diets.

In 1987 Graham and Wagner were instrumental in getting AAZPA to adopt a code of ethics pertaining to the disposition of surplus animals that is now the primary instrument of gradually cutting off the supply of zoo-born wildlife to roadside zoos, canned hunts, and auctions. Graham was villified for that, as well, losing several close elections when he ran for AAZPA office and incurring public opposition from the San Diego Zoological Society and former Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna, whose popular anti-euthanasia policies were achieved by releasing animals to facilities Graham considered substandard.

“It hurts all of us when he talks about euthanizing animals,” Hanna complained. “He’s saying euthanasia is the way to go. How can he say that when we are bending over backward in most zoos to explain to people that we want their public money to preserve endangered species?”

It was a familiar argument to Graham, who had already dealt with the unhappy paradox of euthanasia when obliged to kill dogs and cats at the Antietam Humane Society. Graham never liked euthanasia. He just liked the alternatives less.

AAZPA crackdown comes too late, opening Pandora’s box

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

AAZPA crackdown comes too late, opening Pandora’s box
Zoo surplus stocks canned hunts, roadside exhibits, private breeders

HOOSICK FALLS, New York–The young Himalayan snow leopard paces the corn crib cage, situated at the edge of a woodlot. As roadside zoos go, his home at the Flag Acres Zoo is fairly good–comparable, even, to some accredited zoos of 30 years ago. But it isn’t where one would expect to find an apparent prime example of a highly endangered species. In fact, the snow leopard is genetically redundant “surplus,” neutered and loaned to Flag Acres by the Seneca Park Zoo of Rochester, New York–a facility accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. According to Seneca Park Zoo director Dan Michalowski, the snow leopard was removed from
the captive gene pool to reduce the risk of inbreeding. A conditional loan to Flag Acres seemed preferable to euthanasia. The Seneca Park Zoo may reclaim him if at any time he appears ill-treated. The deal is a model of the AAZPA-recommended protocol for the disposition of surplus animals.

While the snow leopard’s life is far from ideal, he is lucky. Despite AAZPA efforts to curtail the traffic, zoo-bred animals still turn up shockingly often not only at roadside zoos, but also as living targets in canned hunts, as auction merchandise, in the exotic pet trade, in biomedical research laboratories, and increasingly often as drop-offs at private sanctuaries, humane societies, and sometimes even back at accredited zoos. Even more often, sanctuaries, shelters, and accredited zoos find themselves  dealing with the offspring of former zoo animals, who have typically been bred in disregard of ancestry by self-proclaimed private species preservationists who also, just by the way, hope to turn a fast buck. When there proves to be little or no market for the animals, and they grow too big to be pets, the owners begin calling around, trying to give them away. Overwhelmed zoo directors–including Michalowski–now include a prerecorded message to would-be animal donors on their answering machines.

Many zoo officials admit that their surplus, whether yesterday’s or today’s, is the origin of an exotic animal population explosion that includes speculative booms–and busts–involving creatures from ostriches (see January/February 1994) to big cats, wolf hybrids, llamas, and potbellied pigs. There’s just the question of how to deal with it, amid a climate of opposition to euthanasia and acrimony over the alternatives.The solution to the zoo surplus end of the problem favored by those who see zoos as animal prisons would be to simply stop breeding. Indeed, not so long ago most zoo surplus was the product of either accidental or deliberate overbreeding. Some zoos like to keep baby animals on display; knowledge of wildlife birth control was limited; and until public consciousness was raised by the animal rights movement, few people objected to the sale of surplus animals to wherever. As recently as the mid-1980s, some accredited zoos even made a regular practice of breeding surplus animals for sale to the exotic pet trade and/or biomedical research.

Ingenuous failures

Though deliberate breeding for sale is officially history at accredited zoos now, ingenuous failures of management still occur, still producing crowd-pleasing babies and a surplus with few if any acceptable markets. “We weren’t able to get the males and females separated in time, and, well, nature does take its course,” interim Detroit Zoo director Khadejah Shelby explained to Robin Fornoff of the Detroit Free Press in August 1991, touting the arrival of 40 infants of various species about eight months after she succeeded former director Steve Graham. Shelby won high marks for public relations, but when she announced the zoo would no longer euthanize surplus and would relax transfer policies, captive breeding program directors cringed. They’re the ones who manage the AAZPA-accredited Species Survival Plans, and other less formal breeding protocols, whose dual purpose is to replenish zoo wildlife populations without resorting to raids on the wild, and to perpetuate species which have often been virtually extirpated from the wild–sometimes by hunting and poaching, sometimes by habitat destruction, and sometimes by the collecting excesses of past generations of zookeepers. The hardest task before SSP administrators isn’t getting animals who only rarely and reluctantly mate in zoos to breed. Rather, it’s winning public acceptance of the constraints of economic necessity when it comes to removing creatures of overrepresented pedigree from the captive gene pool.

With the capture of endangered species from the wild approaching a virtual halt, and cage space scarce, zoos have little practical reason to keep individuals who don’t help maintain an often precarious genetic diversity. Nor can surplus animals be returned to their native habitat when they haven’t been acclimated to survive in wild conditions–or when the habitat no longer exists.Ripped incessantly by activists and even some AAZPA Species Survival Plan coordinators for euthanizing surplus, Graham repeatedly pointed out that any time an SSP declares a particular animal to be redundant, based upon an ongoing review of stud books, it is condemning that animal to death or misery.

“A place does not exist in any legitimate accredited zoo in the U.S. for an animal who is listed as surplus by a Species Survival Plan,” he argued. “These are pariahs.” In a 1991 guest column for the San Diego Union, Graham outlined the many undesireable dispositions of surplus animals by zoos that don’t euthanize, and charged AAZPA with evading the issue. “This topic came to the forefront in 1976,” he recalled, “when William Conway, director of the Bronz Zoo, indicated at an AAZPA national conference that there can be no biologically sound breeding programs without surplus
animals, and therefore euthanasia must be addressed. The membership voted to table the issue, and although various committees were formed and later disbanded over the years, very little progress has been made.”

The amount of surplus created by the adoption of Species Survival Plans seems to be coming down, as coordinated breeding protocols gradually reduce inbreeding and redundancy. Advances in reproductive technology and understanding of wildlife genetics have also helped: fewer animals need be bred now than 15 years ago to insure the survival of particular bloodlines. Intentional overbreeding today mostly involves hooved stock, and is done to give predators their native diets, which keeps them healthier than a diet of slaughterhouse offal does.But the zoo surplus problem is still far from solved. Noted for successful captive breeding, the San Diego Zoo alone moves 1,200 surplus animals per year–and has been embarrassed six times in five years when surplus animals turned up in inappropriate circumstances.

In April 1989, a fisher, a sloth bear, and two palm civets died aboard an overheated truck en route to an unaccredited zoo in Massachusetts; also in 1989, the zoo sold 15 whitetailed deer, three sheep, and a kangaroo to canned hunts in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1990 two Sika deer were sold to a Texas canned hunt–and although the zoo told AAZPA they had been retrieved, the San Diego Union found they were still there five months later.

Quebec canned hunt proprietor Robert Naud bought a boar from the San Diego Zoo in 1991. Then, in 1992, Friends of Animals revealed a routine traffic between the San Diego Zoo and animal dealer Larry Johnson, whose major client is Red McCombs, of Johnson City, Texas. McCombs both runs a canned hunt and breeds exotic animals for sale at auctions that mainly serve other canned hunts.

The San Diego Zoo surplus problems have been well documented by former San Diego Zoo elephant handler Lisa Landres, who took extensive contacts and inside information with her to first the Humane Society of the U.S. and then FoA after she exposed the abuse of an elephant in 1988 and was subsequently pressured into resignation. But similar cases emerging during the early 1990s have involved many other AAZPA institutions. Peace activists in Syracuse in mid-1991 discovered a six-year-old gibbon from the local zoo had been loaned to the State University of New York at Stony Brook for non-invasive research–and housing in a facility that while meeting laboratory standards, was far short of zoo standards. In November 1991, Lota, a 42-year-old elephant belonging to the Milwaukee Zoo, was found at an Illinois elephant ride concession. (She has since been moved to a sanctuary.) In April 1992 the Philadelphia Zoo was
forced by public outrage to remove a giraffe from a Texas canned hunt, where he was on loan for breeding. The National Zoo of Washington D.C. and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo of Colorado also had loaned animals to the canned hunt, also to be bred. Four of the six Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animals soon died–one in transit, one from drowning, and two from a lightning strike.

There were no such high-profile cases in 1993, nor have any become public thus far into 1994. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the traffic has stopped. And even if AAZPA has finally slammed the door, there is still the problem of proliferating exotics bred from former zoo animals, who were usually sold because they weren’t suitable for breeding. Already excessively inbred, the offspring of the former zoo stock is now so much more inbred that some biologists
grimly describe the private exotic breeding business as a sort of uncontrolled experiment in how much inbreeding a species can suffer.
Ironically, the current drive to stop the sale of exotics to dubious destinations is accelerating the private breeding, because the past availability of exotic wildlife from zoos helped create the canned hunt, roadside zoo, and exotic pet markets in the first place. The markets are largely speculative; most customers are mainly interested in becoming breeders, building breeder pyramids that enrich those who get in and out first. But a lack of end markets rarely breaks a pyramid before all the suckers are bankrupt, and meanwhile a diminishing supply of zoo animals is driving auction
prices up.

Short of trying to buy up all the animals for euthanasia, which would further drive up prices and encourage more reckless breeding, or obtaining laws mandating sterilization of exotics in private hands (which wouldn’t have a hope of passage in Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas, the states most hospitable to private exotic breeding), there isn’t much that zoos or anyone else can do about it now beyond public education. Only when people stop buying exotic pets, patronizing canned hunts, pretending to be restoring endangered species, and speculating in “alternative livestock” will
the reckless breeding cease. Anxious to avoid unpopular euthanasias, partly because of pressure from animal rights activists, the zoo community opened a Pandora’s box.