2 March 2006

Improving the life of captive animals in zoos may be easy as microchipping them and automating individual care routines.

Scientists from The University of Queensland are developing an enrichment and husbandry system that can dispense food, toys and medicine depending on the needs of individually microchipped animals.

Lead researcher UQ Gatton PhD student Julia Hoy said the system consisted of the microchips linked with scanners and other automated equipment that zoo keepers could set to release items at random times.

Miss Hoy said this unpredictability would help enrich caged life.

“The automated system involves microchipping animals so when they come to a scanner it will recognise each animal and then release food, sounds, smells, medications, toys or open a door controlling access to various parts of the enclosure,” Miss Hoy said.

“This has great potential for improving welfare which in turn increases breeding rates and possibilities for reintroduction to the wild.”

USQ researchers Mark Dunn and Professor John Billingsley are helping develop the enrichment system.

Miss Hoy has surveyed zoo staff about using the system with captive mammals but believes it will work with a wider range of animals.

She said the idea for the enrichment system stemmed from her honours project and wanting to give primates more individual care.

For her honours, she filmed 11 squirrel monkeys at Alma Park Zoo, north of Brisbane, for six months to see what would happen when she changed how their food was served.

Their diet of peeled and chopped fruit and vegetables that were regularly placed on feeding platforms was replaced with whole, unpeeled food which was hidden to increase their activity.

“They basically couldn’t even peel a banana when we first gave them whole food.

“Some of the older monkeys who had never eaten whole food began biting the keepers because they had to work hard for their food.”

Some of the monkeys even pinched the scraps off their guinea pig-like cage mates called Agoutis instead of handling their own food.

Miss Hoy said zoos around the world were interested in the enrichment system after she visited 19 zoos in the United Kingdom, United States and Singapore last year asking them about the limitations of current enrichment programs.

The 24-year-old will visit and survey a further 10 zoos in Australia and New Zealand this year.

One of Miss Hoy’s supervisors, Dr Peter Murray, a senior lecturer with UQ’s School of Animal Studies, said the automated system could also isolate animals and dispense contraception without stressful handling.

“Enrichment takes time and money for zoos to do and staff time which is limited in most zoos,” Dr Murray said.

“If we can automate this process and the animals get as much enrichment as you can program into the system, then a lot of the zoos have already said to us, if you can do that we’ll have it.”

Media: Miss Hoy (0438 939 915, 07 5460 1541, j.hoy@uq.edu.au), Dr Murray (5460 1256, peter.murray@uq.edu.au) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (3365 2619)