A just-published study has found that captive animals housed in boring conditions become, well, bored.
While that hardly seems like a surprising conclusion — who wouldn’t be bored out of their brain to spend entire days and nights in a small white plastic box with a grill on one side, or a wire cage? — scientists from the University of Guelph point out that their PLoS One study is the first to assess boredom in non-human animals. The study also shows that boredom in animals can be reduced in an enriched environment, by providing the captive animals with different sensory and other experiences such as water to wade in, passageways to run in, towers to climb and objects to chew.
The scientists studied 29 black minks on a Michigan State University research farm. The minks were housed indoors, with a natural light cycle, in either “non-enriched” wire-mesh cages or “enriched” cages. In the latter, the minks had the same “home cages” but also, via a tunnel, a space of the same width with “running water in a small trough to allow wading and head-dipping, shelf-like structures, and manipulable objects (e.g. rubber dog toys).” New items were added every month.
The mink in the “non-enriched” cages spent more of their time lying down and sitting idly. But when presented with stimuli “ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects to undesirable things, such as leather gloves used to catch the animals,” they investigated these three times as quickly as the other mink and for a longer time. They also ate more treats than the mink in the “enriched” environments (who had been given the same amount of food).
Indeed, the mink in the “non-enriched” cages who spent the most time awake but motionless showed the most interest in the stimuli. These minks’ more ardent seeking of stimulation confirmed to the researchers that they were indeed showing signs of what we would consider boredom, though the lead author of the study, University of Guelph post-doctoral researcher Rebecca Meagher, emphasized that
We don’t know whether mink or other animals truly feel bored in the same way that humans do. We can’t measure that type of subjective experience. But we can see that, when they have little to do, then just like many bored humans, they may look listless, and, if given the chance, eagerly seek any form of stimulation.
Meagher and study co-author Georgia Mason, who holds the Canada Research Chair in animal welfare in Guelph’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science, hope their research will prompt more research about the relatively unknown topic of boredom, such as investigations into whether “intelligent animals such as primates and parrots are particularly prone to boredom in captivity” and why “under-stimulation causes problems.”
It is of interest that another recent study has found that, while chronic stress can kill human beings and laboratory rats, wild animals who live in nature — who have plenty of stressors to contend with including “lack of food, severe weather, too many or highly efficient predators” — do not suffer from the same pathological effects. From studying cyclic snowshoe hare and arctic ground squirrels, Rudy Boonstra of the Department of Biological Sciences and Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the University of Toronto Scarborough says that some physiological changes induced by chronic stress are actually “adaptive and ultimately promote an animal’s survival and reproductive success.”
One thing’s for sure: spending all your days in a small, well-lit cage does no creature, great or small, any good.
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Photo by TheAnimalDay.org