Sunday, May 13, 2012

Primate Enrichment

Welcome back! It is my pleasure to use this blog to discuss a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, and one that is very relevant for captive animals, but especially primates: enrichment!!! So, what exactly is enrichment? Enrichment is process of providing a new and challenging environment to stimulate an animal across social, physical, and psychological perspectives. Consider this! Animals in the wild are constantly foraging for food, selecting a mate, and defending a territory. But many of these activities disappear when in captivity. How would you feel being confined to your apartment for years (especially in New York)? What if you did not have any electricity to support things you typically do (yes... no iPads)? We can quickly imagine that enrichment is a critical part of managing the care of primates. In this blog, let's explore the importance of primate enrichment, the five types of primate enrichment, the enrichment planning process, some typical tactics and techniques, and some closing remarks.

  Why Enrichment Is So Important?
Enrichment is for everyone, and it's great for everyone to gain an understanding of the importance of primate enrichment. It's not "great to have" or optional based on some slush fund of the zoo or institution; enrichment delivers significant benefits to the primate population while reducing common risks associated with captivity. Enrichment is not "an extra"; it is mandated by government officials to protect the welfare of captive species. So, why the focus and attention? What is the added benefit of enrichment for primates? Enrichment impacts and improves a primate's social, physical, and psychological wellness. Enriching activities can stimulate a primate's mind and body to break the mundane routine. Ever see a lemur with a small toy? Or an gorilla with a feeder basket? Or an orangutan climbing on a hammock? Enrichment provides an opportunity to do something different physically and mentally, and often is a crowd-pleaser for us! 

Additionally, some of these interactions involve multiple primates at the same time, so unique social experiences are supported. Finally, adding excitement, suspense, and the intrigue of new and different stimuli promote a better state of emotional well being. In total, these activities can offer outlets for more "natural" behaviors (that we might see in the wild), like foraging or vocalizing. Also, robust, committed enrichment programs can improve reproduction rates and reduce depression and other health conditions. Primates may also explore new or refurbished areas in the exhibit, especially after significant exhibit changes. Enrichment may help re-integrate a member of the group that was separated for a medical procedure. While the list of benefits is many, so too are the risks of withholding enrichment. Researchers have documented significant behavioral and psychological problems, including head flicking, walking in circles, hair plucking, apathy, depression, self-injury and mutilation. These conditions are thought to be a result of prolonged, elevated stress levels, a by-product of a constant, non-stimulating environment. So, if we have established that primate enrichment is essential, what are the five types we can organize for our closest ancestors? 

  Fun Holiday Enrichment Video
The Types of Enrichment 
Primate enrichment (although these groupings have broader relevance) can be dissected into at least five categories. Almost every institution has a different number of categories or various names for them, but we will discuss five categories for the sake of simplicity. They can be defined as social (1), environmental (2), sensory (3), diet (4), and manipulata (5). 

   1. Social enrichment involves special interactions with other animals, whether they are other primates of the same species, members of a different species of primates, other non-primates (such cats, ducks, pigs, etc), and, last but not least, humans. Sometimes these human-based social interactions can be overlooked, but they are equally important to build productive and meaningful relationships. 

   2. Environmental enrichment is typically dealing the physical surroundings, including elevated structures (for perching and climbing), nests, dens, caves, light and humidity, and even the substrate (or habitat floor). A good deal of research energy goes into designing the optimal environment intended to match the primate's natural environment. For example, tree-dwelling tropical species need a habitat with branches, vines, and >75% humidity. Some habitats feature full climate control, lighting that changes on a 12-hour cycle, waterfalls, and even tropical sounds. Although they can be exciting, complete habitat make-overs can be extensive and costly.

   3. The next category is sensory, which features the fun stuff: smells, sounds, sights, touches, but not tastes (see: diet). Sensory is well documented but difficult to implement if one considers working with primate scents, crowd noise, and special colors and textures. Tastes are separated into a distinct category because the options there are vast. 

   4. Diet can include the food substance itself such as ice cubes or seasonal fruit as well as food delivery in a puzzle or hidden to encourage foraging. Diet enrichment is probably considered the easiest to follow and compliance is typically high. If it weren't for this type of enrichment, primates would eat the same food everyday! 

   5. Finally, the "touches" described in the sensory category flow into manipulata, which is a category that is not obvious like the others. Manipulata is considered any durable object or item that can be "manipulated" by the primate.

This category encompasses small toys, games, and various objects that may or may not specifically stimulate the intellect. It is important to remember that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, a piece of mango trapped in a tube can span manipulata and diet enrichment. Those responsible for animal care and wellness must consider the sum total of enrichment and the mix of tactics to ensure it is aligned with the needs and behaviors of that primate species. To better understand this process, let's examine how to design an enrichment plan. 

 Designing an Enrichment Plan
Designing an enrichment plan is no exercise, but requires thorough knowledge of the primate health, in addition to understanding the behavior of the species and specific group itself. One must consider the current habitat (outdoor and indoor), state and federal restrictions and regulations, special considerations (such as a new primate introduction), and the available budget, etc. Typically, an enrichment expert or zoo keeper will collaborate initially by setting some goals for the proposed enrichment plan. From these goals, they develop criteria to achieve the goals, followed by some associated brainstorming on strategies, tactics, techniques that can be considered. For example, if a goal is increasing the diet enrichment blend to 5-10% of consumed food, what are the tactics and implementation to achieve this? After several iterations, and sometimes consulting other industry experts and published research, the team finalizes the plan and begins to implement it. The plan is rolled out with some regular observations, record-keeping, trouble-shooting, and any real-time adjustments. Regular milestones in the plan trigger some analysis of the collected data to inform if the plan is actually working. There are usually discussions to revise the current plan or continue as outlined until particular goals are realized. Disney Animal Programs has a useful online resource to better understand this planning process. But the enrichment plan is only as good as the tools, techniques, and tactics employed. 

   Typical Enrichment Techniques and Tactics
Indeed, one's plan for a college homework assignment is useless without the books, laptop, printer, and internet access. Enrichment tools, techniques, and tactics must be carefully chosen and appropriate for the species and habitat design. This is where things really get creative, as keepers typically need to maximize their budgets to deliver on the plan. I have provided several examples below of actual tools and techniques, including some providers/suppliers so everyone can get a very real sense of the materials involved.  


Toy (manipulata)
Toys provide a very interactive experience for primates and are practical because they can range in size and complexity

Food (diet)
Diet enrichment is widely practiced, whether chopping up some seasonal fruit or purchasing a diet package

Mirror (social)
Mirrors are a very feasible way of providing some basic social stimuli.  

Habitat Improvements (environmental)
This is an example of an improved habitat. 

In conclusion, there is a very clear benefit from putting significant effort (and investment) into primate enrichment. Institutions can provide healthier, richer lives for their captive animals and continue to give the public meaningful experiences. My hope is that a bigger emphasis is placed on enrichment, with more funding available and more innovative ideas brought to the forefront. Perhaps someday soon primates in captivity will be given every opportunity to live stress-reduced and reproductively active lives. 

Thanks for reading!

Apes and iPads

Do you own an iPad? Have you played around with one lately? Pretty amazing and entertaining, right? And, perhaps a bit addicting. Well, one animal welfare group, Orangutan Outreach, has begun to introduce orangutans to iPads. 
 This group believes, and some pretty undeniable research has shown, that interactive technology can be stimulating for apes and a beneficial source of enrichment. We imagine these orangutans aren't on Facebook, Instagram, or Angry Birds, but rather playing with drawing and painting applications to experience the sensation of creating and directing colors and designs. 
Some sessions allow apes the ability to interact with one another remotely, using the video chat connectivity. Richard Zimmerman, the founder of Apps for Apes, claims that "this is not a gimmick." And he's right, based on body of research, the long memory of these animals, and their overall cognitive abilities. iPad and other human technology experiences can be enriching for primates and should be explored further. Obviously, this type of investment is a flashy, trendy thing. We must also consider that most zoo budgets have trouble supporting low-tech, comprehensive enrichment programs. But, perhaps this is where the future is heading as technology becomes more central to all of our lives.

Species Endangerment

Ever wondered where the "endangered species" designation comes from? Ever wonder how many total species are considered endangered? A very important global organization helps to define both, which obviously are quite linked. 

Silky Sifaka Monkey is included in the Top 25 most endangered species list, their population is estimated to be between 100-1000 remaining in the world

The IUCN, or International Union for Conservation Nature is the world's leading organization for promoting nature conservation. Founded in 1948, this organization now has relationships with over 1,200 member organizations, a powerful network to influence change and action across the globe. So, back to our initial questions. 

According to the IUCN, in 2010, there were approximately 17,000 species listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. It is a staggering number to think about, and sadly over 200 of the 17,000 species are primate species (The Top 25 Most Endangered Primates Species). The ratings of "vulnerable", "endangered", and "critically endangered" are part of the IUCN's categories and criteria. 

Siau Island Tarsier: This poor little guy only has a few thousand of his kind lift in the wild 
They also relate to those "red" and "orange" plaques or flags you may have seen at various zoo exhibits. Per the table below, the categories span from "least concern" (far right) to "extinction" (far left). 

Let us hope with organizations such as the IUCN and others around the world we can reverse the trend and the total number of endangered species over the next decade. 

Audubon Nature Institute- Narrative (Non-Fiction Story)

Welcome back to my blog! In this edition, I would like to share a story with all of you, the amazing experience I had during my primatology internship at the Audubon Nature Institute's Zoo  in New Orleans, Louisiana during the Spring of 2010. It all began as part of a school assignment, heading to the zoo to practice some behavioral observation techniques. However, I made a few connections, a touch of networking, and followed-up for some potential internship opportunities. After a successful interview, and some back and forth with HR, the primatology department welcomed me as a Spring intern. Before I knew it, my first day was upon me. I can still recall being so nervous and excited; I really did not know what those first days would have in store for me! 

That morning, I remember arriving at the zoo early with my Starbucks, which I decided to ditch in the car. Soon enough, I was transformed into the keeper uniform, rigid knee-high rubber boots, protective gloves, and some other zoo-sanctioned accessories. Suddenly it hit me; I will really be getting my hands dirty and providing and supporting the kind of primate care I have been looking forward to. After a quick safety video and some colleague introductions, off our team went to attack the objectives for the day. As we exited the staging building, we stepped onto a bleach pad, really reinforcing the importance of not introducing harmful microorganisms into the primates' environment. So, on with the work; daily activities spanned maintaining the habitats, preparing the feedings, administering enrichment interventions, and some behavioral observations of specific primates. Interestingly, the primates chosen for observation were either showing some inconsistencies in activity or appetite, or a new primate pair that were slowly getting to know each other. The internship included other observational activities to better understand the behavioral differences between the various primate species. 
Infant Sumatran Orangutang enjoying her jungle-gym 

As the week went on, I began taking some milestone exams, demonstrating my knowledge of species-specific issues and care management practices. I began to appreciate the hard work that keepers and veterinarians do every day across all animal institutions. The people I worked with were inspiring, and they all really enjoyed that they did. They provided great support when the time came for my large, final internship project: the redesign of one of the primate exhibits. After some deliberations, I selected Stella's exhibit, a very special black and white ruffled lemur. I did have a soft spot in my heart for Stella, but her exhibit was outdated, worn out, and did not support her old age. Stella is considered one of the oldest lemurs in captivity, at over 31 years old (in 2010). She suffers from a neurological disorder that is common among lemurs, which can manifest itself in some stumbling and walking sideways. She needed an exhibit that could provide some comforts, particularly because she was housed alone (which is not typical for lemurs). I worked to design a warm, unique exhibit featuring softer grass, ramps to each level of stone area, more sleeping materials, and decorative paintings to improve the ambiance of her indoor enclosure. The design and implementation was a great success, and the semester soon began to wind to an end. I wrapped up my observations, exams, and transferred back my daily responsibilities to the remaining team members. 

Stella: Black & White Ruffed Lemur, enjoying a palm fran in her renovated exhibit

I continue to maintain some really great relationships with my old colleagues in New Orleans. They continuously inspire me to work hard towards my goals, and support the establishment of my non-for-profit organization, Passion for Primates. And, I look forward to my annual trips to New Orleans to check up on a very special lemur. This was a special time in my life, and one that no doubt has laid the foundation for future success.

Amsterdam Artis Royal Zoo

Several blogs ago, we explored some of the fascinating things that the world famous San Diego Zoo offers visitors. In this blog, I will be highlighting one of my very favorite zoo institutions in the world, the Artis Royal Zoo in Amsterdam, Netherlands. 

This zoo is one of Europe's very oldest, and presents an interesting green, natural contrast to the commotion and canals of the city. However, this zoo is not only renowned for its age or location, but also some very unique features and innovative exhibit designs. Artis features over 700 animal species in various structures (aquarium, butterfly pavilion, and insectarium, etc-. Additionally, as someone who is very interested in animal habitat design and enrichment, Artis does a world-class job with creating unique animal-visitor interactions through exhibits. For example, after visitors go through the main entrance, the plaza opens up to a large outdoor exhibit with camels and yaks. But, the exhibit does not have a fence or any guardrails, rather a skinny, shallow moat encircling the exhibit, so visitors feel very close to the animals, with no "artificial" barriers. I was particularly impressed with another excellent example, the ring-tailed lemur exhibit. This incredible exhibit was an open area through which visitors could actually walk. 

There were no fences, no guardrails, no cages, no barriers at all, and the lemurs could swing beside visitors or walk alongside them, often during feedings when they came down from the trees. This was truly a fantastic experience, and a real treat for zoo-goers who become frustrated with thick-glassed exhibits. 

Enjoy the pictures, and consider strongly visiting the Artis Royal Zoo when traveling through Amsterdam.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Monkey Poetry

Monkey Poetry 
Style: Haiku 
Writer: Jennifer 
Source: Hi!

The monkey will type Shakespeare.
Hi! Monkey! dot net.

I have selected to comment this haiku poem because it is striking (as it relates to primates and intelligence). For some background, a haiku is a form of poetry popularized by Japanese writers, featuring a short, cutting style with a 5-7-5 arrangement of syllables (...not exactly syllables, but really distinct phonetic sounds). Regardless, this haiku by Jennifer is very interesting because it captures the spirit of the primate (seemingly jumpy and energetic) with a highly conceptual theory. The theory associated with typing Shakespeare is called the "infinite monkey theorem". This theory states that given enough time ("eventually" from the haiku), a monkey could reproduce a text from William Shakespeare. This theory assumes that a monkey typing on a keyboard is the equivalent to random typing, and a mathematical formula shows that with enough time, the combinations will provide something extraordinary. This theory made news last September as a software developer is putting the theory to the test, Digital monkeys with typewriters recreate Shakespeare( Finally, the writer closes by including the website link of the poem in the haiku itself (which I find silly, but very clever). 

For more interesting Non-Fiction Primates Tales, please visit :

Primates - The Threat From Global Warming

As global warming news increasingly reaches media headlines around the world, it is important to think about the vast ecological and zoological consequences of warming temperatures. Significant changes to existing tropical habitats will have devastating effects for potentially hundreds of primate species around the world. Habitat reduction and alteration can potentially disrupt the delicate balance primates have with their surroundings and result in massive deaths. 

Let's take a look at a concrete example of how this process would unfold. If global surface temperatures increase (as projected to approximately +2'C by mid-century), the dense leaf content in tropical zones will contain more fiber and less protein. For those primates relying on digesting protein, the quantity needed would increase as well as the time required to digest (energy availability). Additionally, hotter temperatures would result in other behavior changes, such as primates descending from the upper tree canopy to cool off. The impact of more resting could be far reaching, as primates would be spending time away from mating, territory protection, and other activities, as well as be more exposed to predation. Finally, human interactions at the edges of tropical areas would increase as human resources would also increase in demand. These interactions often lead to poaching and other populate depleting actions. 

A report in 2007 from the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN's Species Survival Commission (SCC) found that 29% of the world's primates are in danger of becoming extinct from global warming threats. More recent research from Penn State has shown that El Nino events significantly affected the abundance of several species of primates in South America, a direct link between warmer temperatures, weather, food availability, and primate populations. We all must become educated on the incredible impacts of global warming and be advocates for change in our professional communities.