Survival in the cage

Survival in the cage – İngilizce ileri düzey okuma parçası (advanced reading)


Most casual visitors to zoos are convinced, as they stroll from cage to cage, that the antics of the inmates are no more than an obliging performance put on solely for their entertainment. Unfortunately for our consciences, however, this sanguine view of the contented, playful, caged animal could in many cases be hardly farther from the truth. Recent research at London Zoo has amply demonstrated that many caged animals are in fact facing a survival problem as severe as that of their cousins in the wild-a struggle to survive, simply, against the monotony of their environment. Well fed, well housed, well cared for, and protected from its natural enemies, the zoo animal in its super-Welfare State existence is bored, sometimes literally to death.
The extraordinary and subtle lengths to which some animals go to overcome this problem, and the surprising behaviour patterns which arise as a result, were vividly described by Dr Desmond Morris (Curator of Mammals, London Zoo) at a conference on `The biology of survival’ held in the rooms of the Zoological Society. As he and other speakers pointed out, the problem of surviving in a monotonous and restricted environment is not confined to the animal cage. Apart from the obvious examples of human prisoners or the astronaut, the number of situations in which human beings have to face boredom and confinement for long stretches is growing rather than decreasing. More to the point, many of the ways in which animals respond to these conditions have striking analogies in many forms of obsessional or neurotic behaviour in humans: the psychiatrist could well learn from the apes.

The animals which seem to react most strongly to this monotony are the higher ‘non-specialists’ – those that do not rely on one or two highly developed adaptations or `tricks’ to survive in the wild. Normally seizing every opportunity to exploit the chances and variety of their surroundings, they are constantly investigating and exploring; in short, they are neophilic (loving the new). Most species seem to show a balance between this active, curious behaviour and its opposite, or neophobic; but with the primates and members of the dog and cat families, for example, the neophilic pattern is usually overwhelmingly predominant. It is not surprising that when such species are placed in the highly non-variable environment of a zoo cage, where there are few novel stimuli, they cannot accept-and indeed actually fight against-any kind of enforced inactivity (apart from those times when they obviously just give up and relax). As Dr Morris has remarked, how they do this is a great testimony to their ingenuity.

Observations by Dr Morris and the staff of London Zoo have revealed that there are probably five main ways in which animals try to overcome their monotony. The first is to invent new motor patterns for themselves-new exercises, gymnastics, and so forth. They may also try to increase the complexity of their environment by creating new stimulus situations: many carnivores, such as the large cats, play with their food as though it were a living animal, throwing up dead birds in the air, pursuing the carcass, and pouncing on it to kill.

Alternatively the animal may increase the quantity of its reaction to normal stimuli. Hypersexuality is one common response to this type of behaviour. A fourth method, akin to some kinds of obsessional behaviour in man, is to increase the variability of its response to stimuli such as food. Many animals can be seen playing, pawing, advancing, and retreating from their food before eating it: some even go further by regurgitating it once eaten and then devouring it again, and so on. Lastly-and this kind of behaviour can most nearly be called neurotic-is the development of full, normal responses to subnormal stimuli, such as the camel’s expression of sexual arousal when cigarette smoke is blown in its face, or the making of mother substitutes out of straw, wood, and suchlike.

No one claims that the observations of animals under these conditions are anything but fragmentary. But at least enough is now known about them to persuade zoologists that these bizarre behaviour patterns are not just haphazard, neurotic responses but are genuine attempts to put back some kind of values into the animal’s surroundings, attempts which are beginning to show consistent patterns. It is also too early to say how far studies of this sort can throw light on human behaviour under similar conditions (though as one zoologist remarked, they do show that the best way of surviving a prison sentence is to turn oneself utterly neophobic and take up an advanced course on economics). Yet there is a growing realization that the human environment in the future will become more like that of the zoo animal rather than less, so that the kind of observations mentioned above might well have a growing relevance.

Fairly recent studies of coalminers, for example, have shown that in spite of their phenomenally high daily energy output they spend about seventeen hours sitting or lying down, and sedentary workers some twenty to twenty-one hours. With the spread of automation and the growth of white collar workers these figures are likely to increase. With astronauts, polar scientists, and long-range aircraft crews the problem already exists: a recent study of Antarctic scientists produced the remarkable fact that on average they spent only four per cent of their time in winter outside the confines of their living quarters. With this continued confinement and the extreme uniformity of the outside environment many odd behaviour patterns were developed.

(From an article by Gerald Leach in The Guardian, Tuesday, May 14th, 1963.)