Released: May 6, 1999
Houser swaps soccer field for zoo research
DANVILLE, KY -- Eastern High School graduate Lisa Houser has spent four years at Centre College keeping an eye on soccer opponents as they have paced the field at Centre. This year the veteran defender found herself watching very different type of creatures as they paced, among them a Sumatran tiger, a wild pig known as a babirusa, and an ape known as a siamang.
As one of Centre's John C. Young Scholars, Houser spent the year completing an advanced research project that put her in extensive contact with animals at the Louisville Zoo. In collaboration with Centre Professor Brent White, she delved into the question of why wild animals in captivity exhibit a nervous behavior pattern known as behavioral stereotypy.
Houser explains that behavioral stereotypy is defined as a pattern of repeated behavior that seems to have no goal. The most familiar form is the pacing that lions and tigers do in their zoo enclosures, roaming back and forth for no apparent reason except to stay in motion. Houser says many other animals, from chickens to Tasmanian devils, also repeat certain behaviors, and scientists want to know why.
"There are many studies going on at zoos all over the world," Houser says, "and I think it all comes back to the question of animale well-being. When animals show this kind of behavior, is that a sign the animals need better care? Does it mean the animals are bored or nervous? And, if so, can zoos do anything to improve the environment?"
To investigate the matter, Houser assisted White in studying selected animals at the Louisville Zoo to determine how much of this behavior is present and whether it is affected by changes in the animals' environment. This zoo is ideally suited to such a study because of its new Islands Exhibit, which includes the rotation of animals among various settings.
"People from zoos all over the world want to know if this kind of rotation -- changing the animals' environments regularly -- has any effect on behavior," Houser says. The zoo has provided an enriched environment for animals in the Islands exhibit, giving them more things to do and see.
So far, the research shows different effects on different types of animals, according to Houser. For the orangutuans, the effect was definitely positive, but for the tigers the results were mixed.
Houser will present the results of her research in a campus symposium
at Centre on May 15. She hopes to continue zoo-related studies next year
as an intern at a major zoo.
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