The inner lives of animals: Treating mental illness in zoos

A Siberian tiger yawns at a zoo in Schwerin, eastern Germany. (Jens Buettner/Associated Press)

A Siberian tiger yawns at a zoo in Schwerin, eastern Germany. (Jens Buettner/Associated Press)

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While the idea that animals can think and feel is still controversial in the scientific community, animal behaviourists are busy treating zoo animals for various mental illnesses such as depression, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Writer Alex Halberstadt looks at the psychological problems of animals living in captivity in his recent New York Times Magazine article, "Zoo Animals and Their Discontents."

Jian speaks to Halberstadt about the science behind animal behavioural therapy, understanding animal cognition and whether animals should be kept in captivity.

The job of an animal behaviourist, Halberstadt says, is to "look at the inner lives of animals" -- to interpret their behaviours and treat those that are displaying symptoms of mental disorders.

For example, Halberstadt recalls one giraffe with a phobia of men with large cameras, who reacted by licking herself and refusing food. "The surprising thing is a lot of the afflictions are exactly like our own," he says.

Do animals think and feel?

Halberstadt says the idea that animals have a psyche is still controversial in the scientific community.

"For most pet owners, the idea that an animal thinks and feels isn't controversial at all. Most people who live with a dog or a cat will probably say their pet has a personality and an identity and feels fear and love."

Scientists, however, are skeptical by nature. "To assume that something is true by a reasonable person is not enough -- you have to prove it," Halberstadt says.

That proof may be on the way. Animal sentience is one of the hottest and most rapidly moving topics in the sciences right now, Halberstadt says, pushed forward by behavioural studies and new techniques in brain imaging.

"We know, for instance that shore crabs feel pain, that finches experience REM sleep, that chimps, for example, can experience empathy and sometimes help each other without expecting anything in return," he says. "New discoveries show animals are more like us than we thought."

And these discoveries could have a major impact on how we treat animals -- from keeping them in captivity, to using them for food and leather.

"If we accept that animals can feel...then our entire relationship with animals will have to be re-examined."

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