Within the wildlife conservation community, both in the field ("in situ") as well as in captive settings ("ex situ"), there is a great deal of folk knowledge about the best methods for animal care as well as species protection and restoration. Increasingly, however, empirical knowledge from psychology and cognitive science can be brought to bear on husbandry, management, and conservation-related issues and can inform best practices.

Here's one small example. At the Los Angeles Zoo, I recently participated in a study with on the effects of environmental enrichment on meerkat behavior. Thoughtfully designed environmental enrichment programs, it is thought, allow captive animals to display a wider variety of naturalistic behaviors. A wealth of evidence suggests that when animals exhibit their natural behaviors, zoo visitors have a better and more educational experience, and animal welfare is increased. Unfortunately, one side effect of captivity is the possible emergence of non-naturalistic repetitive or stereotypic behaviors.

Stereotypic behaviors vary according to the species, but might include swaying, coprophagy, regurgitation and reingestion, or pacing. When combined with stereotypic swimming patterns, pacing may actually be the most common form of stereotypy across species in modern zoos. While these behaviors may in fact be more stressful for zoo visitors than for the animals themselves, zoos still have a responsibility to minimize them as much as possible. Other stereotypies may feature or result in various forms of self-harm, which are of course more dangerous. Birds pluck their feathers, horses nip at their flanks, canids, felids, and bears over-groom themselves, turtles may bite their legs, and snakes may chew on their tails.

Enrichment might serve to reduce the occurrence of these and other compulsive behaviors. Legally, environmental enrichment is only required for non-human primates and for domestic dogs. However, many zoos strive to enrich the lives of all the animals in their care, where appropriate.

Until recently, the meerkat enclosure at the LA Zoo was not provisioned with any specific form of environmental enrichment, due to a belief among the keepers that it would increase aggression between the meerkats. (The meerkats are housed socially, however; the presence of social partners may itself be one of the most effective forms of enrichment.)

The pilot experiment that we conducted indicated that, contrary to expectations, adding environmental enrichment (in the form of perforated, hollow balls filled with mealworms) to the enclosure did not modify the meerkats' daily activity cycles. However, it did affect social behavior. The meerkats exhibited more affiliative behaviors (especially allogrooming), while there were no differences in submissive or aggressive behaviors, compared with a baseline.

While a full experiment should still be conducted, this is but one example of empirical science providing important information in order to help zoo keepers and curators provide the most healthy, stimulating environment possible for their non-human charges.

The Empirical Zoo

In addition to the need for improving the care of animals resident in a zoo, there are at least three broader reasons that empirical science ought to be conducted in zoos.

First, in situ conservation efforts can be more explicitly targeted and better designed if they are informed by empirical knowledge derived from scientific observations of the habits and behaviors of the target species. Likewise, captive breeding paradigms are more successful when governed by knowledge of natural mating and parenting behaviors. The release programs that follow captive breeding are likewise more predictable when based upon knowledge of natural feeding, spatial navigation, and social behaviors.

Second, zoo animals provide a means of developing models for disorders of behavior and cognition. The growing awareness of psychopathology in animals among veterinarians, zoo keepers and curators, and other animal welfare professionals has led to an increased ability to identify phenotypic markers of mental distress - that is, overt behavioral indicators - in non-human species. This represents a novel approach towards uncovering both proximate and ultimate explanations for mental disorders, as well as means for intervention. Indeed, while critical for research and conservation efforts, the modern zoo can be, in a way, a living laboratory for psychopathology, and considering zoo animals as model species would represent a new kind of translational model in psychiatry.

Finally, zoo populations provide a more naturalistic source of non-human animals for investigating behavior and cognition compared with laboratory studies. An empirical zoo ought to be crawling with graduate students, post-docs, and other researchers doing basic science. (One research poster I saw at last year's Association of Zoos and Aquariums meeting suggested that visitors also learned more while watching a research demonstration, compared with a more traditional keeper talk!)

Each of these types of research conducted in modern, ethical zoos serves the scientific endeavour, contributes towards the development of more effective conservation practices, and generates knowledge towards the improvement of ethical management practices for captive animals.

The Human Animal

The human animal is a species that is often overlooked when it comes to bringing an empirical approach to zoo operations. Millions of dollars are spent each year at zoos in an effort to increase visitor numbers, to improve the educational experience, to expand membership, and to seek out new sources of funding.

A scientific approach can also inform the way in which zoos engage their human visitors. Zoos make claims about the importance of living animals for teaching people of all ages about conservation. Zoo animals are often referred to as "ambassadors" for their wild counterparts.

Does the presence of live animals at a zoo result in better learning outcomes compared with the stuffed animals at a natural history museum or filmed animals on a movie screen? What is the role of educators and of educational content in driving conservation behavior? Are the educational programs at a given zoo effective at promoting conservation attitudes? Zoo professionals have long made claims about the positive effects of zoos for human visitors; it is critical to use the tools of empirical science to evaluate those claims. (And, if the answer is no, then zoos are in a position to ask how to improve the educational program such that the answer becomes yes!)

And the best part? Much of this research can be conducted fairly cheaply: all you really need is a stopwatch, a pair of binoculars, a few video cameras, some clipboards, and lots of time and patience.