Inside the Minds of Zoo Animals
Among the many conflicting reactions to last weekend’s killing of Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, is the question, “Can animals, especially smart ones like gorillas, ever be truly happy in zoos?”
Terry Maple, a professor of comparative psychobiology at Florida Atlantic University, and the former director of the Atlanta and Palm Beach zoos, has built a career on trying to understand animals and improve their environments.
When he saw the video of Harambe with a toddler at the Cincinnati Zoo, he says he thought he could tell what Harambe might have been thinking.
“What I saw was the gorilla was really grabbing at that kid very much like he was another gorilla,” Maple says. “Male gorillas often steal the babies from the mothers briefly and, you know, in a playful way. They don’t hurt them and it didn’t look to me like he was going to hurt this kid. But we are so much weaker than gorillas.”
“When a gorilla grabs a person’s arm, it could be a very, very tough interaction and it could hurt you or it could kill you. As you saw in the video, if you’re watching it, he drug [the child] a bit through the water. And of course that’s a concrete floor and that could have been disastrous as well. So it was a very dangerous situation — no human being needs to get in with a gorilla. It would be very risky even for an adult and this was a small child.”
Maple says zoos have changed a lot in the past decades, making them better environments for animals.
“Landscape architects began to work in zoos and, rather than build buildings for animals, they started building landscapes,” Maple says. “That revolution started in the late ’70s with the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle — which, by the way, was run at that time by an architect. So this merger, this fusing architecture and behavioral science led to tremendous advances in how animals were housed. And you just speed ahead to where we are today and animals are living in much different environments, much more akin to nature.”
The ideal zoo environment, according to Maple is one that is big enough for animals to move around in, forage and explore.
“It’s not just quantity, it’s quality,” Maple says. “We now know that and there’s been a lot of research on this—that it’s what happens inside that environment or what’s possible. What can the animals do? And you have to set this up, to give them a natural life. We are trying more and more to give them the kind of life they would have in the wild absent, dangerous things that would happen to them in the wild.”
In addition to changing zoo environments, Maple says it’s important to give animals social interaction.
“If you put animals in groups, they’re a lot more social,” Maple says. “We haven’t built big enough herds. You often see an elephant — one or two or three. We need 10, 12, 15 elephants in a group. But zoos have to build much bigger facilities, much more flexible and complex facilities. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Some people would argue that animals should have as little interaction with humans as possible, and even that zoos should not exist. Maple, however, says psychobiologists and zoo experts are changing their minds about this.
“There was a time when we thought, well, you know, we just can’t possibly interact with them, they’re going to become humanized. But as a matter of fact, these animals can live in both worlds. They’re able to interact with us, even communicate with us,” Maple says. “Many of the apes, as a source of enrichment are actually operating joysticks, pushing on computer screens in order to communicate with their staff. They don’t mind doing it and they enjoy doing it.”
“We just have to be careful to allow them to be gorillas or to be elephants.”
—Elizabeth Shockman (originally published on PRI.org)
Terry Maple is a professor of comparative psychobiology at Florida Atlantic University, and the former director of the Atlanta Zoo and Palm Beach Zoo. He’s based in Fernandina Beach, Florida.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Can a wild animal truly thrive in captivity? That is a question many are asking after the killing of Harambe the gorilla, which shocked and saddened many people last weekend. Zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo made the decision to kill him after a four-year-old boy fell into the enclosure, saying there was no way to safely separate the child from the gorilla. Others say, well, the gorilla shouldn’t have been in a zoo in the first place.
There was a time when a zoo was a place of small spaces and iron bars. But zoos have been changing a lot as we’ve learned more about what animals need beyond food and shelter. We’re exploring that process of discovery and adaptation, plus the limits of our knowledge, with an animal psychologist and a former zoo director.
Let me just ask you, what animal behavior do you see at the zoo that you want to know more about? Our number is 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Dr. Terry Maple is a professor of comparative psychobiology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He’s the former CEO and president of Zoo Atlanta and the Palm Beach Zoo and is currently the Professor in Residence at the Jacksonville Zoo. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Maple.
TERRY MAPLE: Well, I’m glad you asked me to be here.
IRA FLATOW: I’m glad to have you. Psychobiology sounds like crazy biology. What does it mean, psychobiology?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, it’s really a blend of psychology and biology, as you might expect. I got this degree a long time ago. So this is when that particular word was used a lot. And really, it truly is more a matter of ethology and comparative psychology. They’re a little bit different. Comparative psychology tends to be a laboratory discipline where a lot of experiments are done. And ethology is more of a natural observing science. And I’ve kind of blended those in my career, now 40 years.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. A lot of people were looking at that video of Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo and trying to think, what was the ape thinking of? Is it possible to get inside the mind of that gorilla?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, some people think we can. At least we know a lot more about them than we used to. There’s been a lot of research on the intellect and even the personality of apes and other species. But it is very difficult, especially in a situation like that.
If you watch that short film, and really there wasn’t a lot of film for us to see, but what I saw was the gorilla was really grabbing at that kid very much like he would another gorilla, because male gorillas often steal the babies from the mothers, briefly and in a playful way. They don’t hurt them.
And it didn’t look to me like he was going to hurt this kid, but we are so much weaker than gorillas. When a gorilla grabs a person’s arm, it could be a very, very tough interaction, and it could hurt you or it could kill you. And as you saw in the video, if you were watching it, he dragged the kid through the water. And of course, that’s a concrete floor, and that could have been disastrous as well.
So it was a very dangerous situation. No human being needs to get in with a gorilla. It would be very risky even for an adult, and this was a small child. So I don’t think the gorilla had intent to hurt, but it was a very, very risky situation, that’s for sure.
IRA FLATOW: Now, zoos have changed. I remember the old concrete cages even here in New York. They had them years ago. But now we have places with bigger, open exhibits, full of greenery. How did science inform this shift?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, it came about it in a couple of different ways. I came into it with the tutoring of an environmental psychologist. His name was Robert Sommer. He’s still with us, by the way, and still writing. Bob Sommer coined the terms “hard and soft architecture” back in 1974 with a book he wrote called Tight Spaces. It was a comparison of hard environments. Prisons, mental hospitals, even airports were included, and zoos.
At the time he wrote that article, he saw most zoos were examples of hard architecture, and these were hard on animals and hard on people. So his idea was to soften environments. At the same time, landscape architects began to work in zoos. And rather than build buildings for animals, they started building landscapes. And that revolution started in the late ’70s with the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which, by the way, was run at that time by an architect.
So this merger, this fusing, of architecture and behavioral science led to tremendous advances in how animals were housed. And you just speed ahead to where we are today, and animals are living in much different environments, much more akin to nature.
IRA FLATOW: Is it the job of the zookeepers or the inhabitant keepers to make the animals happy? How do you know when an animal is, if you can’t get inside their head, happy?
TERRY MAPLE: Some people don’t want to use that term, but cognitive psychologists are becoming increasingly comfortable using terms like that, because they see the enormous intellect of great apes, in particular. And the emotional characteristics of apes are very similar to human beings.
But certainly you can tell if the animal is behaving more like an animal in the wild. This can be measured. This can be evaluated. And we are finding that they are adapting to these new changes quite well. Animals are breeding better. They’re getting along better in groups.
And the keepers and the veterinarians and other people who work with the animals on the front lines, they have an obligation now to enrich the environment even beyond what the physical environment does. So we now talk about the human-animal relationship as one of the most important items in the animal’s psychological well-being.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, see if we can get a call here or two. Let’s go to Kevin in Sacramento. Hi, Kevin.
KEVIN: Hey, Ira. Thanks for the show. It’s really great.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you.
KEVIN: I’m wondering about– I watch some polar bears in an exhibit. And they always seem to be pacing back and forth in the exhibit, or as they swim, they’re swimming back and forth just in a pacing-type method. Are they distressed?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, that’s an adaptation to a space that’s not big enough for them to really do what they like to do, which is to forage and move about and explore. So what’s happened in polar bear exhibits these days– if you go to Detroit, for example, they have an excellent one– they’ve made them bigger. They’ve made them more complex. They’ve given the animals, both in the water and out of the water, caves to explore. And you can go back in one of these exhibits, and you can see the animal behind glass and see what it’s doing back there.
And also, if you put animals in groups, they’re a lot more social, and they do less of this stereotyped movement. So this is an artifact of the old hard environments. And with each passing year, we’re seeing these things disappear, and the better, more responsive environments are being built.
IRA FLATOW: So the answer is not just to simply give the animals more room, more space. You have to give them things to do.
TERRY MAPLE: Well, that’s right. It’s not just quantity, it’s quality. We now know, and there’s been a lot of research on this, that it’s what happens inside that environment or what’s possible– what can the animals do? And you have to set this up to give them a natural life. We are trying more and more to give them the kind of life they would have in the wild, absent dangerous things that would happen to them in the wild.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you took charge of Zoo Atlanta in 1984. And at that time, it had been labeled one of the 10 worst in the nation, with high-profile animal deaths among its problems. And as a psychologist, how did you assess what needed to change?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, some would say that zoo had gone stark raving mad. So only a psychologist could have turned it around. I think I was exactly the right person to do it because I was an expert on captivity, how it affects behavior. I didn’t have any business training. I had to learn that. A zoo is a complex organization, and it takes a lot more than just a background in psychology. But I was the right person at the right time, because that’s where the problems were, and we had to correct that.
We reformed everything in that zoo. We were able to privatize it. So we got out of government, and that limited us. But when we got into the privatization, we could do more faster. And as a result– it did take 18 years to rebuild that zoo. But gradually, year by year, everything got better. And by the time I retired and went back to Georgia Tech, we had turned it around.
IRA FLATOW: Some critics of zoos point to the ways in which animals are moved from zoo to zoo for breeding purposes, for example, as one way in which their ability to thrive is hindered. Does this process take a toll on the animal?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, it’s a bit of an art and a science. When we started moving animals around in the early days, when conservation became more important and the demographics of the animals became important, population biology was telling us that there were animals that were inbred, and we needed to change that. So we started moving animals around that were easier to move around, where the translocation was not difficult.
But for some animals which have a little more tender psyche, you might say, you have to be more careful, and you don’t want to disrupt groups. If possible, you only want to do that when it’s absolutely necessary to get another animal out. And you don’t want animals ever to be in isolation.
So we’re learning each year which animals we can translocate and how we should do it. But really, it’s been very successful. The gorilla population, for example, went from, when I started in the ’70s, a time when gorillas weren’t breeding at all to a time today when we have the most successful breeding program of any animal in the species survival program of AZA. So it’s been a tremendous success. And we’ve moved a lot of them in and out very successfully.
IRA FLATOW: Is learning about zoo animals an experiment or an observation?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, I’ll tell you this. I was a very lucky man in this way. I had a lot of ideas about how animals should live, and I’d been writing about it for years. When they gave me the zoo, it was a tabula rasa. I had to run everything in the zoo, including the business side. The revolution was complete and total.
But the one thing that made me very excited is I had a lot of graduate students, and every one of them worked at the zoo. They got a PhD doing zoo work. And we studied everything. We studied all the changes we made. We did what we call post-occupancy evaluations. We looked at the exhibits, and we measured what happened when we built new ones.
So we built a science of behavior change and environmental change, and this has been what I did in my entire career. And only because I was the zoo director was I able to live in these two worlds. I never stopped being an observer or an experimenter, because I wanted to find out what worked. And I think we have a pretty good idea of what works today.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Dr. Terry Maple, professor of comparative psychobiology at Florida Atlantic University. You say that the animals should be kept in an environment that is as close to their normal. In other words, you’ll know that when they’re acting normally, they’re so-called happier. Does that mean that the role of the zookeeper is limiting, should not be contacting the animals, to leave them alone? Or is there an interaction that goes on?
TERRY MAPLE: Yeah. That’s a really good question. Because there was a time when we thought, well, we just can’t possibly interact with them. They’re going to become humanized. But as a matter of fact, these animals can live in both worlds. They’re able to interact with us, even communicate with us.
Many of the apes, as a source of enrichment, are actually operating joysticks and pushing on computer screens in order to communicate with their staff. They don’t mind doing it, and they enjoy doing it. But it’s a bit of technology that’s an intrusion given by humankind. We just have to be careful to allow them to be gorillas or to be elephants.
There’s a wonderful sign at the Dallas Zoo, where they’ve just built a really marvelous elephant exhibit. It’s about five acres. And this sign says, let elephants be elephants. And they have designed it for those elephants to move about, to interact, to do a lot of interesting things, some of which are done by the keeper. The keeper will spray them with a hose, and they really like that. So there’s a lot of things we can do to make their life even better. But we want them to be, first and foremost, elephants.
IRA FLATOW: So what is our limits to understanding– to our understanding of the animals at the zoo?
TERRY MAPLE: Well, I think it’s our own creativity and our own intelligence. Frans de Waal, one of the great scientists who works on animal intellect, he has said that the reason we don’t understand them better is because we’re not smart enough. And I think he’s probably right about that. But we continue to get smarter. We continue to learn more about them.
And I think it’s a noble thing for zoos to be the place where we learn to understand the animals on this planet, because that understanding not only benefits the animals at zoos and aquariums, it benefits wild animals too. Because we’re always watching them in the wild. You know they’re under great threat in the wild, in the oceans, as well as the forests. And so in order to protect them, to save them, we’ve got to understand them.
IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one quick call in from Eric in San Francisco before we have to go. Hi, Eric, quickly please.
ERIC: Yes, thanks. I think you might have already answered the question. I was on the phone with your screener when I was asking it. But about as far as the health– the psychological health of an animal. When they’re breeding in captivity, isn’t that a good sign that they’re [INAUDIBLE] or they’re doing OK?
TERRY MAPLE: Yes, it is. Breeding is something that we’ve experienced with most species in zoos. Now, there was a time when they did not breed well. But we’ve made a lot of changes. And in elephants, for example, where we’ve had problems breeding them, the main problem, in my opinion, is we haven’t built big enough herds. You often see an elephant, one, or two, or three. We need 10, 12, 15 elephants in a group.
But zoos have to build much bigger facilities, much more flexible and complex facilities. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. There have been many new elephant exhibits in the last five years, some remarkable ones. I would ask you to go to Dallas if you want to see a really good one.
But there’s one in the Bay Area too. Oakland has done a wonderful thing with elephants. They’ve been letting them out at night, which elephants like to do. Oakland is a very heavily-oriented animal welfare zoo, and San Francisco is doing many of these things also. So you’re seeing around the country changes that makes it much better for these animals. And indeed, breeding gets better when you do that.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So goes California, so goes the rest of the country, as usual. Thank you, Dr. Maple.
TERRY MAPLE: You’re welcome.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Terry Maple, professor of comparative psychobiology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He’s also the former CEO and president of Zoo Atlanta and the Palm Beach Zoo.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.