When you confine wild animals to cages, it is rather like demanding marathon runners to practice their sport in a 25 square meter room. Animals are, for the most part, athletes ready for action. Their senses are sharp, their energy enormous and, over millions of years, they have evolved in line with and effectively adapted to the environment in which they live.
This was and still is a matter of survival for them. Consequently, we at the Zoo sauvage de St-Félicien believe that it is absolutely essential that we do everything in our power to ensure that the species residing on our territory enjoy an environment comparable to that which has mirrored their evolution from generation to generation.
It is this philosophy that first inspired and still inspires us when we think of our future development or when we are working on the design of a new habitat. Nothing is left to chance and each detail is planned out. As a result, not only do the animals live a happier life, it is also much more interesting for visitors to watch these animals in a natural environment. These are some of the reasons why, over the years, we have insisted on authenticity when developing the habitats.
This strategy, however, has generated its own set of constraints and concerns. For example, it is essential, when designing a habitat that one be fully aware of the physiology and behaviour of the animals living there and of the many criteria that have to be taken into account if its design is to be effective. Habitats must not only meet the needs of the species for which they are designed, but also incorporate other significant elements such as the safety of animals and of the public, and, of course, the long-term preservation of the habitat itself. The following list covers the essential criteria that need to be taken into account when designing a habitat for animals. But first, as an example, we will have a look at the Japanese macaques’ habitat.
Japanese macaques’ habitat
The Zoo sauvage population lives in an open environment, very often cohabiting with other species, in habitats that are as closely akin as possible to their natural topography. Achieving this balance is a significant challenge whose reward is the air of authenticity that results.
Developing a habitat for a given species of animal requires a range of knowledge that can provide answers to the following questions:
• How does this species behave: i.e. does it climb easily? Does it swim? Burrow? Fly?
• What are the physical characteristics of the environment: are there differences in the ground level? Are there trees, waterways? What type of soil do we find there?
• What means of restraint are appropriate? For example, electric wires? Vegetation? Netting?
The overall project must not only provide satisfactory answers to these questions, it must also be in harmony with the Zoo’s philosophy as regards the authenticity and “naturalness” of the habitat. The Japanese macaque project presented a particularly severe challenge, given the extreme agility of the monkey when it comes to climbing. The easy way out would have been to establish an entirely fenced-in habitat. But the Zoo was not willing to sacrifice its vision of nature by buying into such an option.
The site of the future habitat was selected for the following reasons: it offered a natural watering point, a hill and woodland, all of which corresponded perfectly to the Japanese macaque’s natural habitat. In order to ensure as far as possible the authenticity and openness of the habitat, electric wires were fixed to each tree, to discourage the primates from climbing up and thus escaping. But a number of dead trees were made available so that they could have somewhere to climb. Additionally, a walkway encircles the habitat from which visitors have an unparalleled view of the environment. There are also game activities for children, so that human beings can be integrated into the habitat, thus offering a comparison between the skills of the human primate and those of the macaques.
This type of habitat helps bring visitors and animals into direct contact. No netting, no glass, no barriers to break the spell. The visitor can better appreciate the species and look upon it with respect, rather than with pity.
The area of living space
One has to take into account the lifestyle and behaviour of the species for which the habitat is being constructed. For example, predators, when in the wild, often need to run long distances before finding their prey. We must respect this need for vast spaces. Herbivores, on the other hand, usually have no trouble in finding the plants on which they feed and consequently make use of a smaller territory than do the predators.
The physiological needs of the animals
When reconstituting a habitat, it is essential to satisfy the primary needs of the animals that will live there. Trees (to facilitate moulting or antler rubbing), waterways, feed boxes designed to be accessible only to a specific species, heating stones, stones on which hooves can be abraded, sand, shady areas, dens, all these are elements that may seem very minor, but which may be very important, if not primordial, for the health and even survival of the animals.
A habitat should contain as many natural elements as possible in order to entertain the animal and provide variety in its daily life. Its mental health will depend on this. Animals in captivity whose environment contains no elements to stimulate them may sometimes develop unfortunate behaviour patterns, such as aggressiveness, habit disorders (stereotypy), a tendency to isolate themselves and other behavioural problems.
Therefore, it is essential to provide them with the best possible habitat and to stimulate them mentally and physically through environmental enrichment and training. Enrichment is done in many ways: scent, habitat modification, toys, hidden food, etc. The objective is to make the animal work for its food and behave naturally.
While being as little obvious as possible, restraint items should be selected on the basis of the athletic qualities of the animals that will be coming into the new habitat. A number of factors need to be assessed before determining the type of restraint to be used: the height to which the animal can jump (walls, fencing, etc.); the distance it can jump (in order to determine, for example, the width of a ditch), or its ability to climb. One may sometimes take into account the sensitivity of the paws or the lack of agility of certain species and simply design a habitat perimeter that is rough and rocky. On occasion one might turn the fear of water or of electric fencing to good account. One should also anticipate the skills of burrowing animals and the possibility of escaping from certain types of habitats after a heavy winter snowfall.
By reproducing as accurately as possible the natural environment of the animals, we obviously make it easier for them to avoid being seen by visitors. The challenge, thus, is to create a layout that allows them to be observed practically all the time, while they have the impression that they can hide from their watchers. In order to do this, one should, for example, think carefully before determining the angle of a rock or of a mound of earth, or before choosing vegetation for replanting. Sometimes, we can ensure that the animal remains visible by using certain restraint items that cannot be seen by the public. For example, a grid under the top soil will prevent the animal from digging a lair. These accessories should never be placed at random, but must always respect the criterion of authenticity.
The vegetation that one uses to reconstitute a natural habitat is very important, since this is the principal factor that will determine the authenticity of the design. One also needs to take into account the sometimes major stress to vegetation by animals living on the territory, as a consequence of grazing, trampling, antler rubbing, marking out of territories, etc. This means that it is essential to choose the plant species that best suit each habitat.
Protecting the vegetation
In order to increase the authentic look of a habitat, we often wish to introduce some plant life variety, even though the more vulnerable of these plants may suffer. In order to avoid that the above-mentioned stress factors impact on the vegetation, we will use various means of protecting endangered trees, for example, grids, lexan (a transparent plastic), or electric fencing. One needs to ensure that these devices are as little evident as possible and that they do not affect the health of the plants or the animals.
Highlighting certain plants
The interpretation of plant life is one of the concerns of the Zoo sauvage de St-Félicien and it is as important as the observation of animals. This means that certain plants will be prominently displayed in order to show them to the public and to be able to talk about them.
Foiling the climbers
It may be necessary to ensure that some trees or posts cannot be accessed by climbing animals, whether to avoid possible escapes or simply in order to ensure that the animals remain visible. There are effective and very discreet techniques that will allow one to determine which tree the animals may climb and which trees they may not.
When we wish to keep animals that may be dangerous to human beings, we need to provide safe night quarters. The animals will be fed in the evening and this will make it easier to persuade them inside. The selected layout will allow improved observation and monitoring of each individual animal and will also provide easier access to the main habitat for daily cleaning or damage repair. In such a layout, it will also be easier to go into the habitat as often as necessary in order to bring in new items that will add to the psychological enrichment of the animals.
Capture corridors, restraining cages and isolation pens
This equipment attached to the main habitat is sometimes essential to the handling of larger animals during capture, medical treatment, separation for transfer, etc.
It is important to provide a system that will prevent ice forming on that portion of a lake or pool in a habitat where animals need to travel both by water and by land. The system will be used for species such as polar bears.
It is sometimes necessary to arrange the terrain and provide for a fairly large entrance gate to access the habitat with specialized transport in order to facilitate maintenance during major cleanups or when the construction of the habitat itself requires large items to be brought in.
The safety of visitors and animals
Whether to protect visitors from dangerous animals or vulnerable animals from visitors, it is absolutely essential that the selected type of layout prevents direct contact between animals and human beings. It is also necessary to find ways of dissuading some visitors from throwing objects or food into the habitats.
For many years now, we have favoured the cohabitation of different animal species in order to give greater authenticity to our reconstitution of the habitats of the Borealie and the cold regions. This provides our visitors with some unique viewing opportunities, but also causes a certain number of problems. For example, we are obliged to provide protected areas for the smaller species or the less dominant ones. Without these areas, some animals would be harassed too often by the dominant species and could even find it difficult to access their food.
When you are working on the design of a habitat for animals that spend a great part of their life in an aquatic environment, as do the polar bear or the otter, it is necessary to design a water treatment system adapted to the pool where they spend their time. This requires an appropriate awareness of the behaviour and physiology of each species involved and an adaptation of the purification system to the needs of each situation.
For example, we need to take into consideration the fact that polar bears, during the moulting period, shed a significant amount of fur in the pool itself. Likewise, before deciding whether to keep certain types of fish and marine mammals, one has to take into account the need to install a sophisticated and very expensive system to provide salt water for their pool.
Choice of materials
At the Zoo sauvage, most of the material that we select for the design of habitats is natural, i.e. the same materials that the animal will find in its own environment in the wild. However, inevitably we do use a certain number of artificial elements, whether for the construction of night quarters, of the restraining pens, of the capture corridors, of the feed boxes or drinking troughs. Some of the material used may be toxic for the animals and consequently we must be very vigilant when we come to choosing them.
Ventilation and heating
The animals that we exhibit at the Zoo represent only species that live in the Borealie and the cold regions of the world. This means that most of them can spend winter outside. However, species that naturally live on the southern borders of their distribution and migrant birds need winter quarters which are heated and ventilated during the cold season. Once again, the temperature required will vary according to the specific needs of the species.
Even when dealing with species that are well adapted to our northern climate, it is still necessary to design adequate outside shelters in order to protect them against the icy autumn rain or fierce winter winds.
These shelters should be as natural as possible, not only for the sake of authenticity but because the animals will be more inclined to use them. This will discourage them from trying to build their own shelters and thus being hidden from the visitors’ view. It will also prevent them destroying part of their habitat by attempting to dig down through the soil at random.
Certain species have great trouble reproducing in captivity, even in the most favourable conditions. Birthing areas specially adapted to the needs of species whose reproduction is to be promoted could considerably increase the chances of success.
Maximum number of animal
It is essential to properly assess the maximum number of individual animals that a given habitat can support, in order to avoid its deterioration and destruction over the medium or long term, due to grazing, trampling, marking out of territory or other behaviours. One also needs to take into account interactions between individual animals or between species when determining how many animals can be kept in a given habitat.
Choice of animal species
The choice of species that will cohabit in a given habitat is extremely important because one is attempting to create an environment where, as far as possible, the animals will live together peacefully and not be constantly confronting each other. One will therefore avoid putting a predator with a species that could be its prey.
The type of barrier that will be used to keep animals inside the desired perimeter should also be able to keep out wild species that might attempt to penetrate the habitat. It is necessary to avoid the intrusion of possible predators such as the red fox, the mink, the black bear, the skunk and some raptors.
Safety measures for employees
In certain habitats, in order to ensure the safety of people working there, it may be essential to set up security systems or to introduce protocols to be followed in specific situations. Here are a few examples of safety measures:
• Individual guard locks
• Safety locks
• Alarm system on doors
• Automatic locking system
• Belts and harnessing to be used when involved in dangerous manoeuvres
• Lists of safety regulations
• Emergency plans
All the above-mentioned items are absolutes that must be taken into account before any decision can be made as to the choice of species for acquisition. Evidently, respect of such criteria involves a varying level of costs, but an organisation that decides not to bother will certainly be confronted with serious problems in the short or long term. Ignoring these precautions will probably not only impact on the visual aspect itself, but will make it impossible to ensure the well-being and safety of the animals. The professionalism of an institution is the true quality assurance of the product being presented.