The Needs of Wild Animals in Captivity

How can we tell if a zoo animal's quality of life is good or bad?

When thinking about the welfare of captive wild animals, we can look to see if their basic needs, also known as the “Five Freedoms”, are being met. At the very least, captive establishments have a duty to ensure these basic needs are fulfilled.

Also, having some control over their environment and the freedom to make choices is essential to the well being of animals, and if these elements are lacking this will lead to poor welfare. For a better life, zoo animals require the kinds of natural and complex experiences that they would encounter in the wild.

Next time you visit a zoo, have a look and see if the following Five Freedoms are being met. If not, please speak to the zoo management with your concerns, or express them in a polite letter.

Freedom from hunger and thirst

All captive animals should have access to sufficient clean drinking water at all times, and must be given food of a quantity, quality and type that is appropriate to their species and will keep them healthy.

Freedom from discomfort

The substrate that animals are given is a vital component of their overall welfare. All animals should be provided with areas of soft substrate (e.g. grass, sand, mud) and soft bedding (e.g. hay, straw) if appropriate to the species. Enclosures should be well drained and should not become waterlogged.

Animals should not be housed on concrete or wire mesh floors. If animals are living on hard or wire mesh floors, their welfare is immediately compromised. Wire mesh floors can cause discomfort, pain, infection and injury. Hard surfaces such as concrete can be uncomfortable or physically damaging to animals, and are inherently boring.

Concrete also increases the thermal load animals experience, by radiating heat in hot weather.

Animals need sufficient shelter from the rain and shade from the sun, and there needs to be enough shelter for every individual in an enclosure. They need to be able to keep warm or cool, depending on the ambient conditions.

Animals should be kept in a climate that is similar to that to which they are adapted to. Animals should not be subjected to temperatures that will cause them discomfort, for example Arctic animals should never be kept in tropical climates.

Animals should never be chained, as chains can cause serious discomfort.

Freedom from pain, injury or disease

All animals should be handled and treated as gently as possible at all times.

Enclosures and their interiors should not pose any dangers to the animals. Enclosures and fixtures should be hygienic and not harbour disease.

Visitors should not be able to feed animals, as this may cause them harm.

Animals should receive good veterinary care. Injured animals should never be on display and should receive appropriate medical care away from visitor view.

Freedom to express normal behaviour

Wild animals need the space and opportunity to engage in their natural behaviours. Animals who climb in the wild need to be able to climb. Runners need to be able to run. Swimmers need to be able to swim. Diggers and burrow need to be able to dig. Animals who live in trees need trees. The list goes on. These things should not be considered as extras, but as basic needs of the animals. Food should always be fed in a way that encourages the animals’ natural foraging behaviours.

In the wild, many animals will spend several hours a day travelling, often over vast distances. Sometimes to find food, water and resting places, but they also seem to roam for reasons we do not fully understand. Roaming and moving around not only keeps their minds active, it also helps to exercise their bodies and keep them fit. Animals in captivity need space to roam.

For some animals, such as polar bears and elephants, who roam over vast distances in the wild, it is very difficult to provide them with the space they need in captivity to keep happy and healthy.

Animals should also be housed in appropriate social groups. For example, social primates, such as macaques, should never be housed alone. One of the cruellest things we can do to a social animal like a macaque is to keep him or her on their own.

Animals should never be chained, as this denies them of even their basic need to move freely.

Animals need something to do. As zoo enclosures can only provide fairly static environments, it is essential that environmental enrichment programmes, which stimulate all of the animals’ senses, are in place for all animals, to allow them to express their natural behaviours. Structures and objects must be added to enclosures for the animals to explore. The animals can be given challenges to sort out- for example food can be hidden or put in hard-to-reach places or puzzle feeders. Such environmental enrichment needs to be changed regularly, as animals will quickly become bored with the same old toys, furniture and challenges and they will no longer be stimulating. Token feeding sessions can be considered a form of enrichment, but only if they occur at different times each day. Token feeding sessions that take place at the same time each day simply become a part of the animals’ day to day routine and are no longer enriching.

It’s important to remember that they best enclosures shouldn’t actually need environmental enrichment, as they should already provide complex, stimulating environments. However, in most cases in today’s zoos the animals will definitely benefit from environmental enrichment.

Freedom from fear and distress

In the wild animals need places to hide- to avoid predators, to look after their young and to rest safely. They need them perhaps even more in captivity, to escape from the constant view of visitors when they want to, and from all the unnatural sights, smells and sounds of a zoo full of visitors. There needs to be enough private areas for each individual to retreat comfortably. When animals can’t escape to a private place they may become stressed.

Similarly, animals need to be able to retreat from each other and even from each other’s view. Less dominant animals need to be able to retreat from dominant individuals, to avoid stress and conflict, which may result in unnaturally high levels of aggression and injury. Unnatural aggression between animals, which may result in serious injuries, is far more likely to be seen in situations where animals cannot retreat from each other.

Animals should not be housed in noisy areas, for example near to speakers playing music or amusement rides, as this may distress them.

Visitors should not be able to tease and harass the animals in any way. Any staff taking care of animals needs to be respectful towards every animal in their care, to avoid causing them fear and distress.

Animals should not be subjected to any activities that may cause them fear and distress, such as photography sessions or being made to perform unnatural tricks, which may both be stressful for them.