Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Truth About Animal Care

Earlier this year, we posted a story about our high hopes for the observation beehive. Although the beehive performed brilliantly all summer and well into fall, the population became too low to expect it to carry over into spring. As the Animal Care Department sat down to discuss this, and to think about how to present the saga, a larger story emerged.


An observation beehive is a very long way from the original life of a honeybee, native to southern Europe and North Africa. Bees evolved in warm, dry climates with lots of sunshine. Beekeepers have explored and mastered techniques for maintaining bees in situations vastly different from their natural habitat. But they have also inadvertently exposed them to chemicals and pathogens that did not exist in their place of origin. The price of transporting animals out of their natural habitat is the constant struggle to create a viable alternative.

But what about our other exhibit animals? How does captivity increase or diminish their chances of long, comfortable lives?


The residents of our Tropical Butterfly House come to us as pupae, so they have already lived longer than most butterflies would in the wild. In nature, butterflies produce far more eggs than will live to maturity. Predators, hunger, and disease can reduce the caterpillar population from dozens to just a few pupae. Therefore, few adults live long enough to reproduce. Butterfly farming tilts the odds in favor of the young surviving to adulthood.

Once our butterflies mature and fly around, they face fewer predators or weather hazards than they would in the wild. Sure, there are dangers but our Tropical Butterfly House is pretty safe. Our horticulture team provides ample nectar sources, and there’s fruit for those who prefer it. We choose species that don’t migrate, so their instincts to fly away are not thwarted. Our butterflies do not get to reproduce, but instead they serve as ambassadors for butterflies in the wild. They build good will and interest in preserving wild places for generations of insects to come.


So what about our naked mole rats? Our colony surely has less space than it might in the wild. This is where our Animal Care staff’s commitment to enrichment is critical. Naked mole rats are the most active, dynamic animals we exhibit. Their need to be busy leads to stress related health problems if we don’t challenge them. By constantly changing their surroundings and introducing food in novel ways, we keep them learning and moving. And we entertain our guests and ourselves.

The mole rats show no sign of being bothered by the sounds outside their chambers. They generate a fair amount of their own noise through chewing, and seem oblivious to other sounds. The daily maintenance from Animal Care staff is probably a mild stressor, but remember, not all stress is bad. It keeps animals engaged and busy.

No one knows how long naked mole rats live in the wild, but most sources agree that they live much longer in captivity and if their social needs are met, their quality of life is excellent.


Our boa constrictors are harder to keep active. As they reach their middle years, many snakes naturally become more sedentary, and ours are surely no exception. When you watch a snake presentation at our Live Science Stage, you are participating in an important part of the snake’s wellbeing and care: Exercise. Being handled is one of the best exercises these animals can get.


The axolotls are a sad example of animals whose best chance of survival is in captivity. Introduced species, habitat loss, and human hunting critically endanger their natural relatives.

Axolotls have very specific water quality needs, but once those are met, they need (and want) less enrichment than many animals. Their natural place in the ecosystem is at the top of their food chain, with abundant resources and little novelty. Axolotls show stress very readily, so as long as they are healthy we have a good indication that their quality of life is good.


The tide pool animals live in a much-compressed version of their natural habitat. Our deep and shallow ends do not replicate the diverse ecosystems of Puget Sound. And we don’t have waves! Life in the open water is both more dangerous and more varied than what we can provide. At low tide, shore life is exposed to predation from gulls, crows, eagles, and shore birds pecking and grabbing them. Surely, they can withstand careful fingers!

What our tide pool animals really need is lots of love in the form of caring for their habitat. If our tide pool animals help create the bond that encourages that care, we think that’s a good use of their time.

This article is a long way of explaining that the animals in our care at Pacific Science Center teach us all about the bigger world and hopefully how to maintain it.

No comments:

Post a Comment