Contentedly caged? Researching the behavior of animals in captivity

Meerkat. Taken in Victoria, Australia in Febru...
Meerkats are contented zoo dwellers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings have a long history of living in close proximity to other animals. Domesticated cats and dogs are our companions, horses ease the burden of our work, and numerous other species end up on our dinner table. Beyond domestication, our fascination with animals has seen millions of animals globally placed in zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries – mostly to satisfy our curiosity, but increasingly for captive breeding programs to bolster wild populations in decline.

Keeping animals captive — for whatever purpose — requires that animals feel secure and content. But how do animal keepers ensure the welfare of their charges, whether on the farm or in the zoo? What are we still learning about animals, and how they behave and cope in the captive setting?

Just before the Christmas break last year, we recorded an episode of Up Close where I interviewed two PhD students who are exploring animal behaviour and welfare at the Animal Welfare Science Centre, a joint centre of the University of Melbourne, Ohio State University and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries.

Sally Sherwen’s research is looking at the behaviour of a variety of zoo animals and how they respond to zoo visitors. Megan Verdon is investigating the behaviour of domesticated pigs kept in enclosures.

Enquiry on exhibit: Enlisting art to help communicate science

Science Gallery, Dublin
Science Gallery, Dublin (Photo credit: eadaoin_o_sullivan)

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about science communication that uses art. For me, neuroscience has always been interesting enough without anyone needing to crochet a woolen brain, and I guess my natural inclination is towards the written word rather than visual display when it comes to science – where’s the room for detail and specifics in artistic representations of science?

I think I’ve perhaps been a little too dismissive, though. I recently recorded an episode of Up Close with Dr Michael John Gorman, director of Science Gallery, a science-meets-art project at Trinity College Dublin. Gorman talks about the risks of infantilizing science – something you see a lot of in traditional science museums that seem to forget about anyone above the age of about 12 – and discusses how bringing science and art together can foster debate and innovation in both fields.

Aside from anything else, he convinced me of two things – I need to check out Science Gallery when I’m next in Dublin, and Michael John possibly has one of the coolest jobs in science communication.