Researchers have discovered unpredictable behavior among fennec foxes: They were more likely to forage for food when their
feeding schedule was irregular but not completely random.
have moved into zoos, we’ve brought the scientific method with
In one example, Moore and his colleagues devised a study
to find out why red pandas were pacing abnormally. They
tested a series of working hypotheses and discovered that the
pandas were agitated by their own reflections in the glass of
their enclosure. When the researchers covered the glass with
nonreflective plastic, the pandas stopped their march. “We were
able to turn pacing off and on like a switch,” he says. To reduce
stress on the pandas, zookeepers now keep the glass under wraps.
Jason Watters, PhD, head of the behavioral research program
at the Chicago Zoological Society and Brookfield Zoo, also
takes an evidence-based approach to animal enrichment. “Zoo
people are constantly coming up with crazy enrichment ideas.
Some are incredibly elegant, and others are totally outrageous.
Some work wonderfully and some don’t, but it’s a great testing
ground,” he says.
Studying the zoo’s fennec foxes, Watters turned a scientific
eye toward predictability — something most zoo animals have
in spades. He discovered the foxes spent more time searching
their enclosure when they were fed on an irregular rather than
a predictable schedule. But interestingly, the foxes also dialed
down their foraging behavior when their schedule was wholly
unpredictable (Zoo Biology, 2011). The trick to optimizing their
foraging behavior, he found, was to strike a balance that kept
the animals interested but not completely confused.