We are often asked how COAPE International, as an institute that educates people on animal emotional and behavioural well-being can be involved with someplace as controversial as zoos.   The answer is simple:  there are animals living in captivity all over the world, and whether we agree with the premise of zoos in our personal capacity or not, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to contribute positively to those animals’ emotional and behavioural well-being.  The reality of animals living in captivity also includes animals living in reserves, where they are being slaughtered faster than they can breed, so for COAPE, conservation and education are of the utmost importance.  We get involved with individual problems, not campaigning ones, because we work with practical animal problems in a day to day setting.

It is easy to get drawn into an endless debate about whether animals belong in captivity or not, or whether zoos play a useful role in conservation and education.  However, these debates have very little real impact on animals living in captivity right now.  At COAPE, our focus is to develop and implement ground-breaking, scientifically sound and humane protocols to improve the emotional and behavioural welfare of any animal, and to share that knowledge with any organization who asks.

We are involved because we want to make a difference; a real, tangible positive difference in the lives of the animals around the world, whether it’s Jingo the Labrador or Jingo the elephant.  COAPE’s purpose is to share our knowledge and experience with people who work with animals daily, to improve animal lives right now so that every day lived is as good as it can be, under the circumstances.  The reason why COAPE has donated years of our time and expertise arranging sponsorships for enclosure upgrades, doing staff training, developing and researching enrichment protocols and helping with their implementation is because we believe that that is the only way to make a real difference in the day to day lives of the animals, and because for us, education and understanding is key.  Shouting at an institution doesn’t make the lives ‘on the ground’ any better.  At our core, COAPE believes in motivation, and that emotions are the driving force behind behaviour.  We also believe that that applies not only to animals, but to people as well.  We understand that it’s an emotive issue for many people, and that it is something people are very passionate about. However, COAPE decided to not get involved in the politics, and instead, continues to focus only on what we CAN do to make a tangible difference for the animals and people.  Not just for Johannesburg Zoo, but for any other captive wildlife facility, by sharing our knowledge about animal behaviour and the ground-breaking EMRA™ (now MHERA™) methodology developed by COAPE.  We are sharing this methodology with other parties around the world, where we are developing and evaluating it in collaboration with their experts, while working towards it being implemented by as many establishments as possible, to improve animal welfare from a behavioural perspective.

Let me tell you about what COAPE does as part of our enrichment and training program.  We help to develop enrichment and training programs based on countless hours of research and discussions with experts from zoos and captive facilities around the world.  We monitor behavioural and emotional responses to these programs when they are implemented. We work with the Zoo teams, including the enrichment officers and care staff, who are the people who makes all this happen on daily basis.  We help with training for both the staff and the animals. We volunteer time, expertise and services that would perhaps otherwise not have been available.  We cultivate sponsorships to assist with upgrading enclosures where possible, in order to meet behavioural needs in animals.  We research equipment that can be used to improve quality of life such as the Wild Dog Pulley Feeding system that was recently installed at the Johannesburg Zoo and which was sponsored by RAE Safaris.  We get involved in projects because COAPE believes in conservation via education.

COAPE believes that training must be done only if the animal chooses to participate, and that no animal should be forced to engage, that is why we use clicker training in our training. We teach staff how to clicker train and show them how to put this into action.  But throughout all training, we emphasise one point:  If an animal does not want to interact or train, s/he is not forced, ever.

We are often asked why it’s necessary to teach the animals to do things like lie down, open your mouth or give your paw.  These exercises are only tricks in the same way that one can say teaching a dog to target to get him onto a scale at a vet, or teaching him to give paw so he can have his toenails clipped, or to lie down so you can groom him, are tricks.  Why would one need an elephant to lie down?  For one thing, medical procedures on feet (not for husbandry, that is done while they are standing). To treat injuries in hard to reach places.  Teaching an animal to willingly participate in routine medical procedures reduces not only stress but also the risks as sedation is not required.

Our program aims to enrich the lives of animals in captivity through several avenues which are all outlined in the section about enrichment, below. We are so grateful to so many experts in the captive animal environments worldwide who share their experience and knowledge with us, and in turn, we are happy to share our insights with them – all with the same goal in mind: to do the best we can, with what we have, for animals in captivity.

So, what is enrichment?

Enrichment makes something more meaningful, substantial, or rewarding. It improves something, like quality of life. Enrichment is when something is made more valuable: for animals, it means valuable things such as food, toys and the opportunity to explore their environments. Captive animals (while usually kept in top physical shape) are often left with quite a lot of free time, since they do not have to search for food, find mates or avoid danger. They also spend very little time exploring their environments, because there are very few changes that happen.

We assist in developing and implementing comprehensive enrichment programs, where the needs of each individual are studied and met through an enrichment program designed specifically for that animal. This enrichment program is carefully designed to encourage the animals in captivity to engage in very similar activities as their wild counterparts. The process is monitored and adapted so each animal gets the most out of the program.
There are five different categories that we focus on when providing enrichment. These are:

  1. Play enrichment.
  2. Social enrichment.
  3. Cognitive enrichment.
  4. Sensory enrichment.
  5. Food enrichment.

Play enrichment is where we use toys and social contact as a form of enrichment, for example playing tug of war with people, playing musical instruments or playing with bubble machines.

Social enrichment encourages social contact as a form of enrichment. This includes clicker training as this results in quality social contact with handlers.

Cognitive enrichment is when the animals are given puzzles to solve in order to get treats or food. They must really think about how to solve the problems, and this keeps them busy and stimulated for hours on end.

Sensory enrichment uses sensory exploration as a form of enrichment. Here, we use scratch and sniff scented objects hidden around enclosures for olfactory enrichment; herb gardens/baskets planted in the enclosures for taste enrichment; different textures like hay, cardboard boxes filled with feathers or leaves, straw, pebbles, etc. for tactile enrichment; and wind chimes / music for auditory enrichment.

Food enrichment utilizes the animal’s daily food in such a way that they must mimic foraging/hunting behaviour seen in the wild. The pulley system currently being used with the Wild Dogs in JHB Zoo is an example of this.  We hide food in hard to reach places to encourage primates to forage, and we provide meals in specially made feeders to encourage natural food acquisition behaviours in all the species.

In addition to these five categories, we also look at changes that can be made to enclosures to make them more stimulating for the animals. These changes include meeting species-specific needs like climbing structures for canopy dwelling monkeys or trees for spectacled bears.

In 2018, Candice Ward – one of our COAPE Diploma graduates and Zoo project team leaders – was employed by the Johannesburg Zoo as a full-time Enrichment Officer. The Enrichment Program is now in her extremely capable hands, and COAPE is proud to support Candice in the essential work she does.