Are zoo big cats treated better than house cats?

An array of toys to stimulate and to create opportunities for natural behavior such as stalking moving objects and pouncing.
An array of toys to stimulate and to create opportunities for natural behavior such as stalking moving objects, scratching and pouncing.

Animals who live in zoos can be pitiful shadows. The number of pacing or lethargic or fur-plucking zoo residents are slowly being reduced by enrichment programs, at least in the United States.  Enrichment can be providing new and different food types, hiding the food in balls or puzzle boxes, introducing balls or other toys into the enclosure, introducing new scents into the enclosure, providing different types of bedding (straw, wood chips) and teaching tricks to strengthen the bond between zoo keeper and zoo resident. I interned at a zoo several years ago. As an intern, part of my day was spent carrying out enrichment procedures such as hiding food.

When I visit New York’s luxury apartments to care for well-loved cats, I’m saddened by the lack of enrichment. Some owners do go out of their way to provide an array of toys, vary the food, spend time playing with their cat, create bird-watching opportunities, and so on.  I love visiting these homes. Other homes are barren, if seen from a cat’s point of view.

One goal of enrichment is to allow the cat to engage in natural behaviors. Scratching is natural.  Pouncing is natural. Jumping up to the highest level in the room is natural. In some homes, all of these natural behaviors are grounds for punishment. The cat will be yelled at or sprayed with a water bottle or banished to another room. The inescapable fact is that a cat is a cat. Wanting to have a cat who looks like a cat but doesn’t do what cats do is self-defeating behavior, and accounts for the high frustration levels of some cat owners.

From The Association of Zoos & Aquariums

Types of Enrichment

It is important to have knowledge of a species’ natural behaviors and physiology when developing enrichment program. Several categories of enrichment are then used to enhance that species’ behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and psychological well being. These categories are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, however each, if relevant to the species, should be incorporated into an animal’s enrichment plan.

Environmental Enrichment Devices
Environmental enrichment devices (EEDs) are objects that can be manipulated by the animal. These objects may be novel or pre-existing. Natural EEDs may include browse, large and small branches, wood wool, hay, and flowers however these items should be kept clean to prevent bacterial growth. Man-made EEDs may include premade items such as car wash roller brushes or strips, Boomer balls, tires, and Kong toys, or constructed items such as puzzle boxes, piñatas, and various PVC contraptions.

Habitat Enrichment
Habitat design is an important consideration for providing enrichment. Habitats should provide a variety of substrates, levels, and complexities. Considerations should be given to useable space versus total space, and ease of reaching or changing platforms, tiers, ropes, nesting/denning areas, feed/water dispensers, and crevices/crannies for EED/enrichment food hiding.

Sensory Enrichment
Animal sensory systems are typically specialized by species and play crucial roles in their survival. Sensory enrichment is designed to address the animal’s sense of smell, touch, hearing, vision, and taste and elicit species-specific response, territorial, reproductive or hunting behaviors. Olfactory stimuli may include natural predator, pheromone, or prey scents or novel scents such as spices or perfumes. Tactile stimuli may include a variety of EEDs that can be manipulated including materials of different textures such as straw, soft blankets, paper, burlap, cardboard, or wood. Auditory stimuli may include the presentation of natural sounds or animal vocalizations recordings. Visual stimuli may include EEDs of different colors, those that move by wind or water current, animals in the line of sight from other habitats, video presentations, or mirrors. Gustatory stimuli include food enrichment items, flavored sprays, or beverages.

Food Enrichment
Food can be presented in a variety of ways elicit feeding, hunting, foraging behaviors, problem-solving strategies, and to facilitate behavioral conditioning. Food may be fresh, frozen, soft, hard, smooth, rough, heavy, light, cold, or and may be incorporated into puzzle boxes, hidden in or scattered about the habitat, or buried in the substrate.

Social Groupings
Social groupings should resemble those observed in the wild to facilitate feeding, grooming, social, territorial, and courtship behaviors. Mixed species exhibits may also provide symbiotic or complementary activities between the species.

Behavioral Conditioning
Behavioral conditioning for animal husbandry and research behaviors provides cognitive stimulation that increases the intellectual focus of an animal. Animals voluntarily participate in these training sessions to maintain established or learn new behaviors.

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