Encouraging Changes from within in Vietnam

Article by Sarah Blake, Projects and Development Manager for Wild Welfare

In 2017, before I joined Wild Welfare, I worked with them on a project in Vietnam. Our collaborative goal was to do as much as we possibly could to improve the lives of the animals in one particular zoo. It turned out to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding three months of my life.

Looking back, it’s difficult not to think about the heat. I landed in Vietnam in the height of summer so the temperature was a solid 40° Celsius most days. Not only was I caked in sweat, but the animals were all overheating too. The first thing I decided to do was create some ice block enrichment for them to interact with. Freezing water and food treats into ice blocks, cubes or any shape is an easy but effective way to encourage positive behaviours (such as investigation and playing) from animals in zoos, so I thought this would be a great way to start. The keepers had never been shown how to make them before so we worked together, using whatever receptacles we could find to create animal ice creams (as the keepers called them). Anything from old empty beer cans to a ginormous dustbin was fair game and we filled them all with a mixture of water and bits of food that the animals might like. Once frozen, we delivered them to the animals. As the keepers watched their charges interact with these novel toys, I realised that they had enjoyed the process of making them and watching their animals’ responses. And this was the first success. If I was going to be able to make big changes within this zoo, not only did I need the keepers on board with my ideas, but I needed them to want to help. Making it fun was the first step in that process. Wild Welfare’s aim is never to simply “prop up” a struggling zoo but instead to teach and encourage the keepers in order for them to want to make positive changes themselves.

An animal with its mouth open

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Sun Bear with Ice block – This was the first time that this sun bear had ever been given ice enrichment. He stood for hours licking it and manipulating it, trying to balance on his hind legs at the same time. It was our first great success of many more to come.

I was trying to think up ways in which the motivational needs of the animals could be met (and the humans too!). Animals (and humans) are motivated to carry out specific behaviours that are rewarding when it comes to evolutionary survival in the wild. For example a macaque will forage for food because it needs to find food to survive. If it is not given the opportunity to actively search for its food, frustration can occur because the behavioural need is not being met. When I arrived at the zoo, there was a lot of stereotypical behaviours being shown which indicated this kind of frustration. If an animal was demonstrating a stereotypy (e.g. unnatural levels of pacing) it would be an indicator that they didn’t have the opportunity to undertake the behaviours that they were motivated to do. They might undergo feelings of frustration because they had an energy expenditure deficit so I needed to figure out ways of providing those opportunities without being able to give them more space. Enrichment was usually the answer. Enrichment should never be given purely as a distraction and the provision of it does not magically transport a zoo from the bad welfare to the good welfare category. However, it is a useful tool and one in which I was desperately trying to get the keepers invested in within this zoo.

A dog jumping in the air

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Lion on feeding pole – The keepers already knew about feeding the lions from feeding poles as this had been implemented by another welfare advisor before my time. The keepers were always keen to show off their big cats this way, particularly as it always drew a large crowd of visitors.

As well as enrichment provision, I started training the keepers to train their animals. This was useful in terms of cognitive stimulation and trust building for both the animal and keeper. Training also provided the opportunity to encourage more foraging for the animals through training them to safely shift on and off exhibit in order to provide scatter feeds and enrichment devices.

Furthermore, training is also an extremely useful tool in the management of animals in terms of their vet care. If an animal can be trained to voluntarily participate in its own medical care, the entire process is much quicker, safer and less stressful for all involved in comparison to alternative methods such as restraint. During my career I have seen many animals consciously take part in their own X-rays, blood draws and annual vaccinations; and what’s more, they usually love it! It’s a rewarding experience for them because it involves a reward that they find motivating enough to want to take part. It was certainly a complicated idea to try and teach the Vietnamese but we had some great successes, particularly with a Przewalski horse mare with some aggression problems and some of the sun and moon bears. We found the bears were particularly eager to learn due to the prevalence of honey as a reward!

After a month I started running around the zoo with a large and boisterous group of Vietnamese school kids chasing after me. We had organised some education sessions with local school groups and these involved a practical element. The kids would actually be helping to make enriching toys for the animals and seeing the results. I would also talk to them about the same concepts I was teaching the keepers. Things like allowing the animals to have choice, wanting them to live in a stimulating environment and basic biological and conservation ideas. It was great fun whilst I was teaching but afterwards I would collapse in a heap of exhaustion!

Tiger and sandcastle – A lot of the large carnivores were on sand and I had a brain wave one day, decided to make everyone sandcastles. Not only that but I could add scents like lemon grass to them. Olfaction is the key sense for big cats and bears so it is important to stimulate it. The destruction of the sand castles also encouraged digging behaviours, particularly in the bears.

By the time my final month came around I had started running workshops with the keepers to get them involved in thinking through more complicated welfare issues, as well as designing and building structures for the animals. Some of the furniture additions we put in were a quick and simple affair, such as a large bamboo pole for the gibbons to brachiate from. Others were a more complicated matter. The bear build was a huge undertaking in which we added structures to all the moon bear enclosures as well as completely revamping the sun bear area. It was fantastic to see the keepers getting excited about the project as they meticulously helped me plan every detail. I was very impressed with their building skills too! But the best part was seeing the reactions of those bears to all their new furniture. We had designed it to be as stimulating as possible for the bears, whilst also being durable to the challenges of the climate. The idea of offering an environment full of choice was a new concept to the Vietnamese zoo staff, but with the additions of visual barriers, different platform levels, hammocks, climbing frames, trickle feeders and logs, the bears finally had options as to where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. This was important in terms of mental welfare but also in terms of their physicality. Their muscles were getting more of a work-out as they were able to demonstrate more behaviours from their natural repertoire. They could climb, dig and would have more motivation to move around and investigate more.

We had a lot of conspecific aggression issues with the bears which we wanted to rectify and one of the ways we did this was through furniture. Visual barriers provided the opportunity for the bears to get out of sight of each other if they wanted to as well as providing more distractions from potentially negative conspecific interactions.

A person sitting at a zoo

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Sun Bear on ladder – This was the reaction of our sun bears after we had completely revamped their enclosure. They had never been given the chance to climb before and therefore were a little nervous of going higher but the more honey we put out there to tempt them, the braver they got!

One success I really loved was encouraging one of the keepers to present at a conference which Wild Welfare were running in the south of the country. I felt incredibly proud watching him stand up in front of a large audience of Vietnamese zookeepers and excitedly talk through the journey we had all been through in the previous three months. I had no idea what he was saying but the passion was evident, and the audience seemed really engaged. The time slot for questions afterwards actually overran as so many keepers were interested in what we had done. Ultimately that is how changes can be made to improve animal welfare standards across the globe. It’s about instilling passion and enthusiasm to the keepers which makes them want to make those changes themselves. Thankfully Wild Welfare are there to guide animal care givers along the way.

A monkey holding onto a fence

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Gibbon on bamboo pole – Bamboo poles were something cheap that the zoo had plenty of so we utilised it as a resting pole for the gibbons. They also enjoyed brachiating from it. What was great was that the keepers saw how quick and simple the addition of this was and so they put a second one into the enclosure without me even asking.

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About Wild Welfare

Wild Welfare is a global organisation committed to improving animal welfare for captive wild animals. By uniting the world’s leading zoos, zoo associations and animal welfare organisations, we build trusting partnerships that help provide long-term solutions to critical wild animal welfare issues.

Our vision is to end the suffering of captive wild animals around the world and ensure full and sustainable protection is given to all animals in human care. Find out more at www.wildwelfare.org. Registered charity in England (no.1165941).

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