Keeping Large Mammals Captive Damages Their Brains
By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Kiska, a young female orca, was captured in 1978 off the Iceland coast and taken to Marineland Canada, an aquarium and amusement park. Orcas are social animals that live in family pods with up to 40 members, but Kiska has lived alone in a small tank since 2011. Each of her five calves died. To combat stress and boredom, she swims in slow, endless circles and has gnawed her teeth to the pulp on her concrete pool.
Unfortunately, these are common conditions for many large, captive mammals in the "entertainment" industry. In decades of studying the brains of humans, African elephants, humpback whales and other large mammals, I've noted the organ's great sensitivity to the environment, including serious impacts on its structure and function from living in captivity.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior
It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both elephants and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections.
Many animals try to cope with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "stereotypies," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.
Changing Brain Structure
Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment physically damages the brain. These changes have been documented in many species, including rodents, rabbits, cats and humans.
Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND
Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to thin the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.
There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals process information less efficiently than those living in enriched, more natural environments.
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND
Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that don't allow for needed exercise. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and enhances cognitive abilities.
In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from 15 to 120 miles per day. In a zoo, they average three miles daily, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam up to 156 miles a day; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its natural home range.
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells
Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with almost no control over their environment.
These situations foster learned helplessness, negatively impacting the hippocampus, which handles memory functions, and the amygdala, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress elevates stress hormones and damages or even kills neurons in both brain regions. It also disrupts the delicate balance of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.
In humans, deprivation can trigger psychiatric issues, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder. Elephants, orcas and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.
Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.
The repetitive, stereotypic behaviors that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND
Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by turning different genes on or off. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.
There is strong evidence that enrichment, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are necessary for long-lived animals with large brains such as elephants and cetaceans. Better conditions reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors, improve connections in the brain, and trigger neurochemical changes that enhance learning and memory.
The Captivity Question
Some people defend keeping animals in captivity, arguing that it helps conserve endangered species or offers educational benefits for visitors to zoos and aquariums. These justifications are questionable, particularly for large mammals. As my own research and work by many other scientists shows, caging large mammals and putting them on display is undeniably cruel from a neural perspective. It causes brain damage.
Public perceptions of captivity are slowly changing, as shown by the reaction to the documentary "Blackfish." For animals that cannot be free, there are well-designed sanctuaries. Several already exist for elephants and other large mammals in Tennessee, Brazil and Northern California. Others are being developed for large cetaceans.
Perhaps it is not too late for Kiska.
Bob Jacobs is a Professor of Neuroscience, Colorado College.
Disclosure statement: Bob Jacobs does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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