Behind the scenes at the ABQ Biopark


I visit zoological parks with some trepidation. I think there are some species of animal that are ill suited to captivity, and proper maintenance of any zoo is a monumental task. However, I have been luckily enough to have close working relationships with all manner of zoo staff, from keepers to educators to directors. Zoo people are good people and they take ethical quandaries very seriously. It’s no surprise that, over the past 10 years, zoos have been undergoing makeovers and pushing conservation narratives as part of their educational programming.  Today my husband and I took a behind the scenes tour of the giraffe and rhino facilities at the ABQ Biopark, our new hometown zoo. We moved to Albuquerque in January and the Biopark was one of our first stops. I especially love the Bugarium.


Male beetles duke it out on the Valentine’s Day during the Bugarium’s “Love Bugs” event.

Behind the scenes tours always have a chance of being a bit depressing. While many zoos have beautiful, natural feeling exhibit spaces, holding areas are often dark, damp, and depressing. They are built for safety and for the ease of keeping animals, not for guests. I put my worries aside and purchased a ticket anyway. Perhaps patting a rhino would be worth it?

We were greeted by friendly staff in the administration office and given large VIP buttons. When we got to the meeting area it had been clear our group was waiting for us (sorry fellow zoo patrons and keeper). The keeper gave us a quick introduction and some ground rules and we set forth back to the rhino holding area. On the wall were neatly arranged brushes for cleaning the rhinos and giving them scratches.  The rhinos, Chopper and Bertha were waiting. Our keeper let us know that zoo staff were trying to condition Chopper to present his flank rather than greet people head on through the bars. So, we were encouraged to give good quality scratches when he presented his flank. Right away I noticed that the holding area was well maintained, new, and had more than enough space for the rhinos. Secondly, the Biopark has special rules that allow certain animals access to both their outside exhibits and the inside holding area unless the weather is too cold or otherwise horrible. It was good to know that the holding area was really just a holding area, rather than the main home of Bertha and Chopper. To my delight, both Bertha and Chopper appeared to like having the area behind their ears rubbed.


Zane contemplates rhino conservation with Bertha. 

Our keeper identified them as Southern white rhinos. Their Northern cousins are extinct in the wild. Southern white rhinos almost met a similar fate. A century of conservation has brought their global population from < 100 to over 20,000 individuals. With advances in reproductive technology, scientists are able to maintain “frozen zoos” where they keep viable sperm, eggs, and embryos of species in need. In 2015, the San Diego brought 6 female Southern white rhinos to their zoo to serve as surrogate mothers for Northern white rhino embryos. The potential moms have undergone exams this year to prepare them for surrogacy. Bertha and Chopper help wild rhinos in other ways. The Biopark works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as part of the rhino Species Survival Plan. This means that they work with other AZA accredited institutions to ensure that captive rhinos are properly cared for and that they are genetically diverse. So when you support places like the Biopark, you are helping to maintain a sort of genetic insurance plan for wild animals. Genetically speaking, Noah’s ark doesn’t work very well in practice. Zoos cannot maintain tiny populations of a species and hope to build up a genetically healthy population. Even many zoos with many individuals are at a collective loss if the individuals in questions are too closely related. Species Survival Plans help stop that from happening. And so I was happy to support Chopper and Bertha with my ticket and ear scratches. On a side note, rhinos very much maintain the same body posture of Eeyore, the meloncholy burro from Winnie the Pooh. It’s very hard to get a photo of a rhino where it doesn’t look sullen, no mater how much it is enjoying a scratch.


Chopper gets a scratch from a young guest while keeping his head down, just like Eeeyore.

After wrapping up with the rhinos, we were off to meet the giraffes. The giraffes at the Biopark are also part of their own Species Survival Plan. You might ask yourself why giraffes need a Species Survival Plan. The giraffe keeper at the Biopark had a very good explanation for this. Giraffes have undergone significant population decline. Some conservationists refer to the decline as a “silent extinction” because no one talks about it. To make matters more complicated, scientists are just barely unwinding the secrets of giraffe DNA, revealing several different kinds of giraffes. When giraffes were originally brought into zoos, these different kinds were interbred, making most captive giraffes some kind of mix.

The giraffes we met were reticulated giraffes, with maybe a pinch of something else here and there. The Biopark has a few female giraffes, one young male, and one older male, affectionately known as “Buck” which is short for Buccaneer. Giraffes are highly specialized to browse leaves that grow tall in trees. So, we had the opportunity to feed them leaves still stuck on twigs.


If giraffes do  not get to use their tongues to forage, they start to lick non food objects.

These extra feedings, along with special food hampers that force the giraffes to use their tongues, help them relax and avoid stereotyped licking behaviors. Apparently, and I did not know this, giraffes are very sensitive. If they are stressed or not cared for properly, they can die from nutritional complications. It is very important they ruminate for long enough to properly digest their food. Additionally, keepers try to make sure older giraffes, especially females, are not separated from their established social groups for long periods of time or moved to new zoos. Moving causes loads of stress and is not a first resort when caring for giraffes, so giraffe keepers prefer to avoid it.

Visiting the rhinos and giraffes got me thinking about the role modern zoos play in society. After the documentary, Blackfish, the ethics of keeping certain animals captive for human entertainment has skyrocketed to the forefront of the American public’s minds. As we visited the rest of the Biopark we saw lots of other animals, some of which would arguably be much happier in large open, free, spaces. However, those spaces are disappearing and their wild counterparts suffer at the hands of people.  If modern zoos are committed to Species Survival Plans and taking proper care of their animals, maybe it’s worth it to keep healthy populations in zoos? It could be, now that we are living through the 6th extinction, that we have a moral imperative to keep genetically viable populations of wild animals in captivity. Zoological parks and aquariums, especially those with AZA accreditation, do work towards the welfare of their charges. Increasingly, education programs are being measured against their effectiveness at changing human behaviors and knowledge retention.  Did you spend more time at an exhibit because of an educational program? Did you remember more? Did going to the zoo inspire you to purchase shade grown coffee? Did you decide to donate to a conservation effort? Maybe you joined a citizen science project with your local zoo?

In my case, I paid a little extra to go on a behind the scenes tour with two species that need our care and our help. Maybe you would like to go too? 

P.S. I donate to conservation organizations that work in the field and contribute to citizen science projects. I also allow non-profits to use my photography for free. Helping the local zoo is great, but one has to get off their arse and get dirty in the field once in awhile.




Stereotypic Behavior in Zoo Animals: What is it?


Recently, the public has been more engaged that ever in politics regarding the treatment of captive animals.  In this blog I discuss stereotypical behaviors, what they are, and common methods of trying to fix them.

Below you will find a video of a Polar Bear engaging in some stereotypic behavior.  The bear walks forward, sways its head up and down, and the takes a few steps backward. For the purposes of this blog I am defining stereotypic behavior as abnormal, predictable, and repetitive behavior in animals.

I would like to note that it was actually pretty difficult to find a video that wasn’t made by an anti-captivity group.  I couldn’t find much info on the video author, but he seems to be visiting the zoo and making videos without any agenda.  For this post, it was important to me to find a video that did not have an obvious political affiliation as I want to focus more on the science than the politics.

Before proceeding I should note that there is a lot of debate in the scientific literature about the exact definition and which behaviors should be considered abnormal or not with regard to stereotypy.  Often, these behaviors include things like pacing, licking objects, self-grooming to the extent of injury, and swaying.  In domestic animals you see similar behaviors like spinning in dogs and cribbing in horses. There is some evidence to suggest that wide ranging carnivores are art particular risk of developing stereotyped behavior in zoos.

Stereotyped behavior is difficult for zoo guests and employees to watch, as it is intuitively unnatural.  An animal that is otherwise healthy but pacing will produce an emotional response is zoo guests and staff that a sickly, but lounging animal wouldn’t because it is so obvious.  Keep in mind that, while stereotyped behavior is often associated with a welfare problem, there are instances where the affected animal scores high on other welfare measures.  In addition, some animals that do not display stereotyped behaviors score very poorly on welfare assessments as stereotyped behavior might actually be a more effective coping mechanism in terms of stress than no behavioral coping at all.  So, it is very important to understand the context of stereotyped behavior before writing angry letters to zoo officials and donating your hard earned cash to PETA.

So, what causes stereotyped behaviors?  There are lots of explanations out there that focus on the internal motivations of the animal (ex. Tigers pace because they have a compulsions to patrol large swaths of territory).  Motivational explanations are problematic because they focus on internal states of the animal, which are very difficult to study using scientific methods.

Personally, I subscribe to a more behavioral philosophy.  Behaviorists, frustrated with non-empirical methodologies in Psychology, decided to only study observable behavior and ignore the internal states of their human and animal subjects.  While impractical in some cases, behaviorist philosophy has produced some of best methods in animal training, therapy for autism, and addiction therapy. Behaviorism, as a philosophical standpoint, peaked in the 1960’s and fizzled out by the end of the 20th century.  Today, the philosophy of behaviorism has been meshed with cognitive approaches to produce a more holistic approach to analyzing human and animal behavior that doesn’t treat the brain as a unfathomable “black box.”  Still, a lot of what we know about captive animal behavior comes from these early behaviorist studies.

Back in the day, behaviorists did a lot of their work on pigeons in particular.  One particularly interesting phenomenon they described is called “superstitious behavior.”  Have a look at this short video below.

Zoo enclosures, unfortunately, often function as operant chambers like the one in the video.  Even though zoo enclosures are designed more and more to look natural, they tend to be behaviorally sterile. There are very few rewards with the exceptions of water, sunlight, and physical comfort.  I define a reward as something that increases the likelihood that the animal will engage in some behavior other than the one it was doing previously.  In the wild, a carnivore might have all sorts of little rewards during the day like food, scent of a potential mate, scent of food, and the list goes on an on.  They encounter all sorts of things that elicit exploration, climbing, marking, etc.  In captivity, the chances of having any of these rewards delivered at random and in variety decreases.  There is no “behavioral biodiversity” in their day to day life.  Stereotyped behavior might actually be a series of elaborate superstitious behaviors where the animal “thinks” their behavior is linked to some of the few rewards they get throughout the day.

Some of you have probably figured out that this phenomenon doesn’t just occur in zoos. Many pet owners have animals that are the worst offenders.  Do you have a dog in your neighborhood that goes through some kind of repetitive ritual every time someone walks by the yard?  Does your dog have a specific “dance” that they do before they come out of their kennel or get their leash on for a walk? How about a friend who owns a parrot that pulls out their feathers?  Personally, I have a loach in my fishtank that superstitiously swims up and down the side of his/her tank for a few minutes at a time (behavioral enrichment for fish, I suspect, is a wide open scientific field). Superstitious behaviors are everywhere in the captive animal kingdom.

The good news is that scientists are pretty good at reducing the frequency of time animals spend engaging in stereotyped behaviors in zoos and at home.  A meta-analysis of enrichment studies by Swaisgood and Shepherdson (2005) indicated that typical zoo interventions work to improve stereotyped behaviors a little over half the time.  Some of the solutions involve toys or apparatuses that make animals work a little bit to get their daily meals, or training the animals to do certain behaviors as training is enrichment on its own.

One of the main points I want readers to understand is that most species of captive wild animals are adapted to work very hard and solve lots of problems in order to acquire food, find mates, and have a social life.  Getting fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a bowl is a disservice to the Psychological health of any captive animal.  Requiring zoo animals to exhibit natural behaviors to get their food every day goes far beyond getting them to “do tricks” for guests.  If the Orcas featured in the move “Blackfish” were not constantly learning new behaviors for shows, any stereotyped behaviors they exhibit would likely get worse.

Another issue I’ve heard concerned zoo guests bring up is that animals undergoing training and enrichment are sometimes food deprived/calorie restricted so they will “work” for a food reward. In a laboratory setting, rats are typically maintained at around 80% of their free feeding weight when undergoing any kind of behavioral training with a high degree of success and safety.  Similar calorie restrictions, in many animals, have been shown to increase lifespan.  Kind of makes me want to diet.

Calorie restriction can improve animal welfare under the correct conditions, and when food deprivation is not possible or ethical, some captive animals will still “work” for treats without any calorie restriction.  The point is that “tricks” and working for food are unnecessarily demonized by animal rights activists, and are some of the best tools for reducing the frequency of stereotyped behaviors and giving captive animals’ brains a job to do.

In a nutshell, calorie restriction is not the same as positive punishment.  It is not the same as using “force fetch” methods to train hunting dogs or using bullhooks on elephants.  Behaviorists have two techniques at their disposal, reinforcement and punishment.  Reinforcement and punishment both can be positive or negative.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of a behavior occurring and punishment is anything that decreases the chances of a behavior occurring.  Positive training teachniques add something to the environment like a treat or a shock, and negative techniques take things out of the environment like withholding food or cessation of a shock.  So delaying feeding until after training sessions doesn’t really fall into any of these categories.  Withholding food until the animal preforms the correct behavior, however, can be classified as negative punishment.  However, withholding food in these situations does not involve the introduction of unpleasant (aversive) stimuli.  No pain, no shocks, just the potential for some frustration when learning something new, and the animal is always given the proper amount of calories by the end of the day regardless of their performance during training.  Good trainers, as you can see in any dog obedience class, will scale their efforts to the ability of the animal and minimize the need to withhold rewards, and give frustrated animals breaks or easy tasks to do.  We use these same techniques on our own children when they are in school, but we use language in lieu of food.

In a nutshell, stereotyped behavior in captive animals is not a “mental-illness” or “psychosis”, but a preventable and treatable behavioral problem.  Demonizing the best tools trainers have to improve the lives of captive animals and companion pets gets us nowhere as a society. Many zoos do not have the training or the staff to implement enrichment programs for all their animals, and there is still lots of research to be done on enrichment in less charismatic animals like reptiles and fish.  The public has the power to change this by demanding enrichment for all animals in the same way that veterinary treatment is required, and by not visiting for-profit institutions with low quality of care.