The Psychic Maladies of the Zoo Animal

not molly but AHHH

The New York Times has an amazing long piece up about zoo animals, the inadequacy of their “enriched” environments, and a behaviorist who tries to rehabilitate animals when there’s no obvious medical problem to solve:

Molly [the Barbary sheep] stood scanning the air for nonexistent insects, dashing between her spots and running away whenever anyone approached. She became uninterested even in food. What troubled Virga was that he hadn’t been able to interrupt her behaviors, which signaled to him that Molly was experiencing something beyond ordinary fear. “Fears can be unlearned, but phobias can’t,” he said. “Conditioning won’t work on a phobic animal.” Virga had already shown me videos of severe psychic suffering at zoos. In one, a brown bear in the throes of obsessive-compulsive disorder takes three paces forward, rotates its head counterclockwise, slams it into a metal door, takes three paces back and repeats the pattern over and over. So, reluctantly, Virga did what thousands of mental-health professionals have done before — he prescribed Prozac. Within weeks, Molly began a gradual return to her preinjury self.

“In scanning for flies when there were none, Molly wasn’t responding to a stimulus,” writes Alex Halberstadt. “Instead, I wondered out loud, wasn’t she remembering insects from her past and anticipating them in her future, thereby demonstrating her capacity for memory and prediction? Virga grinned and nodded.” I love zoos and visit them everywhere I possibly can, but am currently rereading Casey N. Cep on the obvious case to just fuckin’ close them all. [NYTimes, via Longreads]