What Would You Do for Your Bored Rhinoceros?

What Would You Do for Your Bored Rhinoceros?

Because no species is prepared to deal with an absence of environmental unpredictability

Marianne Hale/San Francisco Zoo

In the workshop area of an outbuilding at the San Francisco Zoo sits a gigantic oval ball of thick, hard plastic. To an untrained eye, it’s an art project or perhaps a freeway barricade, but in fact it’s the prototype of a toy—one made specifically for bored rhinoceroses. When finished, it will contain 24 apples: a rhino’s favorite treat.

Patterned after the Foobler toy for dogs, which dispenses treats as dogs play with it, this is a Foobler on steroids—the size and weight of a boulder. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Jason Watters, the zoo’s Vice President of Wellness and Animal Behavior. Possibly the only PhD in the country with this title, Watters believes fervently that zoo animals, who bring such richness to the lives of their visitors, are owed a high-quality life themselves. That means inventing ways for them to not only tolerate their captivity, but to thrive in it physically, mentally, and emotionally. To that end, Watters works tirelessly to create stimulations for various species—from a treat shooter in the anteater environment to the rhino Foobler.

At the forefront of the movement to place the highest priority on zoo animals’ wellness, Dr. Watters has drawn national attention with his efforts. Conservation magazine called his work “a researcher’s call to arms.” We caught up with Dr. Watters for a stroll through the Zoo, where he greeted various animals by name.

S&H: As the wellness revolution continues to spread through the human world, how might those benefits extend to other species?

JW: I believe that “wellness” is an emotionally fulfilling and healthy life. And perhaps most important to the wellness concept is that an individual is most well when he or she has the power to attain that balance on their own. Rather than simply supplying provisions like foods or medicines to zoo animals, wellness providers focus on supplying opportunities and strategies for satisfying their deeper needs.

How are animals’ needs and ours similar?

Research in several fields points to the finding that probably all animals experience affective states—states in which they experience joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like—just as humans do. If so, it makes sense that experiencing positive affective states is important for generating balance.

What made you decide to devote your work to zoo animal happiness and wellness?

I’ve been interested in watching animals probably my whole life. I began working at a pet store in seventh grade, and did so for several years, during which time I developed an eye for what to me indicated happy animals. While my doctoral work and my postdoctoral work had me building enclosures to house animals and support their behavior for study, I never used words like “mind,” “emotion,” or “happy” when I discussed what animals needed. I didn’t think these were particularly empirical words, but I was wrong. There was good science on that too. I just wasn’t reading it yet.

How were you able to make the leap from research to behavioral enrichment for zoo animals?

It wasn’t easy at first. There was no general approach to enrichment. Even if this was deemed necessary, it seemed to me that there would never be enough time or resources to promote wellness for zoo animals. The cause seemed to be lost. But I wrote a paper noting that in the wild, change and uncertainty are critical, and began saying in talks that no individual, regardless of species, is prepared to deal with a complete lack of environmental unpredictability. I think it is when I wrote that paper that my decision was irreversibly made.

What are the payoffs when zoo animals are happy and feeling engaged in their worlds?

One might say that a happy animal is payoff enough. But also, observing an engaged, happy animal helps a person visiting the zoo connect with the animal. When a zoogoer sees an animal playing, searching around, performing positive social behaviors, or even making eye contact with visitors—it becomes a wellness moment for that person as well. And when people feel good at the zoo, they are more likely to take positive action for animals or conservation issues. So happy and engaged zoo animals have a role in generating wellness moments for the planet!

How could the principles that you’ve learned extend to all animals in “captivity,” from milk cows to dogs who live in small high-rise apartments?

I think that all animals need to have reason to investigate their environment and find stimulation there. When everything important comes from just one person, animals are going to mostly wait for that individual. Having no control over a pet’s environment is not a recipe for their wellness. Luckily, there are now ways to enliven the space where your pup lives while you are away, and provide opportunities for happiness and stimulation.

Do you get a sense that the animals—like the anteater with the treat shooter—are grateful for your efforts?

Boy, I wish I did! To be honest, I spend a lot of time watching and thinking about animals and developing things for them. Perhaps because I place such a big emphasis on turning their environment on to empower them, they don’t have any real reason to thank me. But I sure like watching them when they’re happy.

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