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Science Shows Caged Animals Get Really Bored

We've known all along that this is true and now research shows we are correct.

Even the best of zoos and laboratories cannot provide what their nonhuman animal (animal) inhabitants want and need. And now, a detailed scientific study shows that caged animals get incredibly bored in their impoverished surrounds. The abstract of the original study titled "Environmental Enrichment Reduces Signs of Boredom in Caged Mink" can be found here. Excerpts read: 

Animals housed in impoverished cages are often labelled ‘bored’. They have also been called ‘apathetic’ or ‘depressed’, particularly when profoundly inactive. However, these terms are rarely operationally defined and validated. As a negative state caused by under-stimulation, boredom should increase interest in stimuli of all kinds. Apathy (lack of interest), by contrast, should manifest as decreased interest in all stimuli, while anhedonia (loss of pleasure, a depressive symptom) should specifically decrease interest in normally rewarding stimuli. We tested the hypotheses that mink, a model carnivore, experience more boredom, depression-like apathy, or anhedonia in non-enriched (NE) cages than in complex, enriched (E) cages. ... Overall, NE mink showed no evidence of apathy or depression, but instead a heightened investigation of diverse stimuli consistent with boredom. This state was potentially indicated by spending much time lying still but awake (although this result requires replication). Boredom can thus be operationalized and assessed empirically in non-human animals. It can also be reduced by environmental enrichment.

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In a nutshell, mink in the NE (“non-enriched”) cages spent more of their time lying down and just sitting around idly. But when presented with enriching stimuli “ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects to undesirable things, such as leather gloves used to catch the animals” they got up and investigated these items more quickly and for longer periods of time than other mink. 

This is an extremely important study because it provides scientific validation for what many people already knew based on observing the behavior of these and other animals in captivity. Let's hope that as long as there are animals in captivity they are given the very best treatment they can get, and that this is mandated by the regulations and laws that are in place and implemented in the future. Surely, we can do no less as all animals depend on our goodwill for how they are treated. 

We can do anything we want to other animal beings. That's how powerful we really are. However, power does not mean we have license to abuse them because we can.

The teaser image can be found here.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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