Today I began my week-long research project at the Como Zoo on the orangutans they have there. And now, more than ever do I seethe that I couldn’t complete my research project in the field.
The Como Zoo is impressive for a free zoo; it has Sumatran Orangutans (an adult male and female, adolescent(?) female, and a juvenile male), two Western Lowland Gorillas, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys, and a few other primates (Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth not included though it’s located in the primate exhibit with the White-faced Saki Monkey and Geoffroy’s Tamarins). But it’s a free zoo at the mercy of tax dollars and donations–and it shows in the exhibits and unfortunately, the animals.
While I was there, I noticed the juvenile male orangutan performing stereotypic behavior (saluting). After alerting the zookeeper about the behavior (who had no idea what stereotypic behavior was), I began to pay attention to the environment of the surroundings even closer. I wasn’t paying attention the first time the saluting behavior happened, but the second was very shortly after a child started pounding on the glass and screaming.
And then, it got me wondering. How many of these stereotypic behaviors are really brought on by the crowds that come to be entertained and (maybe) learn about the animals? Certainly, the manner in which the primates were reared has an effect (Mallapur & Choudhury 2003), but surely, that can’t be all as in this particular case, the juvenile was born at the Como Zoo and is still reared by his birth mother. Housing may also play a role (Mallapur 2005), but I think it’s also important to consider the role of the crowds as well.
I think at this point, one of the best things the Como Zoo can do for its primates is to make a sign for incoming guests and let them know of things that upset the primates–I may be too optimistic, but I want to believe most people don’t want to inconvenience the animals and would be considerate if they had the knowledge that some of their actions may negatively stress out the animals.
I know I have a lot of friends who have no idea what I mean, so here’s what I’d probably put on that sign:
Please don’t do the following behaviors (it makes the primates upset!):
– Smile or make eye contact. They see this as a threat!
– Tap the glass or scream; it startles the primates!
– Make noises to rile the monkeys–this stresses them out.
I don’t expect parents or kids to know better–hell, without my training at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center or in my classes, I wouldn’t have known these behaviors were bad. But here’s hoping that someone reads this and goes to the zoo next time with a little better etiquette for both the animals and the zoo-goers.
Mallapur, A. & Choudhury, B.C. (2003). Behavioral abnormalities in captive non-human primates. Journal of Applied Welfare Science, 6(4), 275-284.
Mallapur, A. (2005). Managing primates in zoos: Lessons from animal behaviour. Current Science, 89(7), 1214-1219.