We here at Zoospensefull talk a lot around the importance of observation in animal training. Observing our animals can have many benefits and for us is something we enjoy. The amount you learn through looking at your animals, especially when they are not aware of your presence, can often paint a very different picture from when they are in a training session. An in-depth understanding and clear knowledge of behaviours your animal commonly engages in will help you better deal with unwanted or ‘stereotypic’ behaviours if or when they arise.

Stereotypic behaviour – An undesirable repetitive behaviour that is enacted by an organism, generally as a result of anxiety and/or lack of stimulation.

When we discover, either through our own observations or others, that our animals have stereotypic behaviours, we tend to say the animals are bored. It’s impossible to say with one hundred percent certainty what is going on in the mind of the animals we work with, but what we do know is that the behaviour was or is being reinforced and that is why it continues. The animal develops a coping mechanism due to an emotion they experience which is perceived as uncomfortable. The question then becomes what that reason is and how we can change the behaviour?

Pacing is a behaviour that occurs more often than we think and is not species specific.

Stereotypic behaviours can be very distressing for the animal care staff and the visiting public. When you have a behaviour that you are unsure the cause of, it can make you feel powerless or ineffective at your job. Here at Zoospensefull we try to take a holistic approach when looking at unwanted or problem behaviours. Through observation we can only guess at why the animal is doing what it is doing, but it can give us some clues at what the causes might be. We start by looking at four main areas, health, nutrition, environment and behaviour.


We make sure an animal has no underlying health issues that may be causing or contributing to the problem or unwanted behaviour. Getting your animal checked by a vet or treated for possible illnesses and injuries may help solve your issue. For example, feather plucking in parrots is quite common, but one cause can be the presence of ectoparasites especially if your bird is housed outdoors or more than one animal is affected.

Another example is from a sun bear at a zoo in Canada. The bear had a repetitive swaying behaviour, moving from one leg to the other with his head swinging from side to side. While working through this challenge they discovered the swaying behaviour was a result of a toothache.


Often in human care it can be next to impossible to replicate the animal’s wild diet, due to limited availability or financial limitations or possibly the animal is highly specialised in what it eats or it just isn’t humanly practical to source the correct food stuffs. Whatever the reason, zoo keepers and nutritionists are constantly looking into ways to ensure your animals are receiving the correct amount of vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc that they need to thrive. For example, many zoos and safari parks are transitioning over to fruit-free diets for their animals. Poor diet can result in many issues including fur or hair loss in many primate species.


Is the area the animal is housed in species-appropriate with plenty of opportunities to encourage and express natural behaviours? Remember, the size of the exhibit does not automatically mean it is suitable to meeting an animals needs. Exhibit complacency, bigger doesn’t always mean it’s better. Regardless of the size of an exhibit the animal will see every corner of that exhibit within a few days or weeks. Ensuring the environment is set up for the animal to succeed when training a behaviour is termed the ‘antecedent arrangement’ and can be equally as effective to reduce problem or stereotypic behaviours. Environment does not only refer to the area in which the animal is housed, it also refers to how they are housed. Is the temperature and humidity correct? Are they getting appropriate access to UV? Do they have the correct photoperiod? Are they housed with conspecifics in naturally occurring groups or numbers? Is there unnecessary stress from competition over resources? There are many aspects within the animals environment to consider which may play a factor in unwanted or stereotypic behaviour.


This area looks at the animal’s mental state. The two biggest contributors to this category are training and enrichment. Ensuring an animal’s behavioural goals are being met can be extremely challenging especially in captive circumstances. A high level of care comes with some cons, the major being the animal’s needs are readily met and often leave it with large amounts of time that would normally be filled through foraging, mating, protecting/exploring territory, hunting, play, etc.

Caracal Enrichment at Chessington World of Adventures, UK

Even with a robust enrichment programme and diet presentation (contrafree-loading) the average day for a zookeeper is usually no more than nine hours. That leaves 15 hours of the day to be filled and while for some species that can be taken up by sleep and rest, it is still an important point to remember.

At Zoospensefull we are big fans of variety and believe that predictability in some circumstances can lead to problematic behaviours for the animals. The animals are quick to learn our routines and know when something will or won’t happen, especially at a particular time.

River Otters anticipating a feeding to come.

In many instances anticipatory behaviours can turn into trained behaviours if followed by reinforcement. For example, pacing in big cats is quite a common stereotypic behaviour but is usually heightened around feeding opportunities. Creating opportunities where calm behaviour is reinforced over excitable or anticipatory behaviours may lead to a reduction in potential stereotypes. This is where your knowledge of animal behaviour will help, because in some situations a repetitive behaviour will develop first and if not picked up on quickly enough, could potentially result in a stereotypic behaviour. When it reaches that level the problem becomes much more difficult to solve.

Observation is key in proactive behavioural management. The above tools frame the approach we use and we often choose to tackle multiple areas at once. While it would be useful to understand the animal’s reasons for the stereotypic or problem behaviour our main goal is to reduce or eliminate the behaviour altogether. Emotions could play a contributing factor to these behaviours but as we can’t measure emotions, we need to rely on the behaviours we see.

Have you solved stereotypic behaviours? Check out our website for more information and webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at upskilling your basics, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general, send an email to info@zoospensefull.com or join our Facebook group.

Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy. For more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at info@zoospensefull.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com

Categories: Trainer Talk


Bird & Ectotherm keeper at Hamilton Zoo NZ


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