Open Eye: Life Is a Stressful Environment ; There's Nothing Unnatural about Stress. Animals Suffer from It in the Same Way as Humans, and for Similar Reasons, Says PETER TAYLOR- WHIFFEN

By Taylor-Whiffen, Peter | The Independent (London, England), May 7, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Open Eye: Life Is a Stressful Environment ; There's Nothing Unnatural about Stress. Animals Suffer from It in the Same Way as Humans, and for Similar Reasons, Says PETER TAYLOR- WHIFFEN


Taylor-Whiffen, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


The polar bear walks the 20 feet along the pool edge and, just before he gets to the bars of his enclosure, lowers his head to the floor. Then he raises it up, turns round and makes a similar journey to the other end of the pool. He lowers his head, raises it up, turns round and starts the journey again. Backwards and forwards. Non-stop. For hours. And hours.

Such behaviour is distressing to the zoo's viewing public - many of whom, of course, conveniently forget they paid to come in and see a polar bear in captivity. The bear is stressed, they say, and has without question been driven mad by its environment.

The animal's behaviour is likely to be linked to anxiety, being far away from its natural environment and without sufficient stimulation to exercise an increasingly bored mind. But is it an unnatural reaction to exhibit under these totally unnatural conditions? Not necessarily, says Open University researcher Frederick Toates. The repetitive behaviour is certainly disturbing to the eye - but perhaps we ought to be more worried if the bear wasn't doing it.

"There are three questions here," he says. "How do we explain the behaviour? Is it necessarily indicative of poor welfare? And if it is, does that mean there's something wrong with the bear if it isn't exhibiting such signs?"

Dr Toates, a reader in psychobiology in the university's department of biological sciences, has been studying animal psychology for 35 years and is in no doubt that many symptoms and causes of stress can be rather similar in animals to what they are in humans.

"A bear or a caged lion, prowling up and down, might have some similarities with the traditional idea of the expectant father pacing the hospital corridor," he says. "There is a particular level of stress there - mostly to do with a loss of control. None of these animals - including the man - has influence over its situation."

Such repetitive behaviour, called stereotypy, is common in mammals and birds suffering stress and, says Dr Toates, occurs when their behaviour starts to be controlled on a lower level of brain organisation.

"Most animals have the ability to operate on a cognitive level - they can think, they react to stimulus in a variety of different ways," he says. "Almost all, too, have some natural capability of exercising at least a little control over their lives.

"But without the necessary higher level stimulation from their environment, they automatically drop to a more basic, reflexive level. It's like a human walking down the street - you can do it automatically, without thinking. You don't need to apply a cognitive level of operation to do it and all animals, including humans, naturally use their reflexive level for as many tasks as they can get away with.

"But if animals in an environment are without stimuli for long enough, they can make a wholesale shift down to this reflexive behaviour - whether it's bears pacing in enclosures or men and women serving long sentences in prison. And the longer a creature operates at that level, the harder it is to get out of it."

According to Dr Toates the two main triggers are almost always stress and/or boredom. When creatures - again including humans - are driven out of their minds by inactivity or are pre-occupied with worry, they can move into a more reflexive level. Put another way, it becomes far more difficult to think straight.

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Open Eye: Life Is a Stressful Environment ; There's Nothing Unnatural about Stress. Animals Suffer from It in the Same Way as Humans, and for Similar Reasons, Says PETER TAYLOR- WHIFFEN
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