Stuffed Animals in the Bat Exhibit, Why?
by | September 14th, 2012

An Island Flying Fox interacting with a stuffed bear.

An Island Flying Fox with a stuffed bear.

One question we are asked frequently is “why do the bats have stuffed animals?” I would love to just say they are toys for the animals to play with (and often do when I am talking to small children), but the truth is that it is just more complicated than that.
First, I need to give you some background. There has been a lot of buzz in the media lately about the way zoos pair up animals for breeding. Many people are now aware that it is not done by chance and that we breed specifically to enhance and maintain as much genetic diversity as possible. What that means is that some animals are going to get more opportunities to breed than others, simply because of how heavily their families are represented within the captive population. The result is many animals are not recommended to breed and therefore have to be prevented from breeding by some method. The bats at the Oakland Zoo are on loan to us from Lubee Bat Conservancy where the majority of the fruit bat breeding happens in the US. Most of our bats have well represented genes in the captive population. The result is that Lubee gave us ALL male bats. That’s right; all 28 bats in our exhibit are boys, no babies here!
The second thing you need to understand is the concept of enrichment. AZA accredited zoos like the Oakland Zoo strive to provide animals with the optimal care and welfare. This means not only excellent medical care and nutritious food, but also enriched environments that allow animals to perform behaviors that they would naturally perform if they were living in the wild. This can take the form of large naturalistic exhibits like our sun bear or elephant exhibits, or it can take the form of a 50 foot tall enclosure that allows space for the large bats to fly. Sometimes it includes objects that may not be found in the wild, but still provide an opportunity for the animals to perform natural behaviors. This type of enrichment is most frequently seen with our primates. For example, in the wild, chimps will use twigs to collect termites from inside rotting logs. At the zoo, we will give the chimps other types of toys such as PVC tubes or Kongs with treats inside and they must use the twigs to retrieve them. Natural behavior from an unnatural object still results in increased welfare.
So now that we understand these two concepts, we put them together. Mostly our all male colony of bats works well, but for a few months out of each year, they go into breeding season and that causes some discord and a few disagreements in the group. Boys will be boys, right? They feel a need to chase each other out of territories, scent mark and generally just be cranky with each other. We discovered pretty quickly that the number of injuries in our bat colony increased each fall, coinciding with breeding season. While none of the injuries were serious, we still felt that we could improve their welfare if we reduced the number of injuries.
Enter the teddy bear! We hoped (and thankfully were right) that hanging stuffed animals in the exhibit would allow the bats the opportunity to take out their frustrations on something besides each other. Success! In fact, the concept was so successful (a 90% reduction in injuries) that keepers presented their findings at the 2010 Animal Behavior Management Alliance conference – winning an award for their efforts as well as becoming a cover article for their newsletter! The article has also been published in The Shape of Enrichment, an internationally known zoo trade publication focusing on enrichment for animals of all species.
Hanging stuffed animals in the bat exhibit allows our bats to perform the natural territorial behavior spurred by their hormones while preventing injuries within the colony. Natural behavior AND increased welfare from a simple child’s toy. While they may not look like a natural part of the exhibit, stuffed animals are an important component of the care we provide to our bats. Look around the zoo next time you visit and you may notice other exhibits with unusual enrichment items and now you know they serve some purpose that enhances the animals’ well-being.

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