Letting Animals Control the Remote

A common feature of captive environments is that they deprive individuals of agency—that is, they constrain individuals’ ability to make decisions and exercise control over their environment. Agency is recognized as an important component of good welfare. However, animals rarely have control even over features designed to improve their welfare, including video or audio environmental enrichment. 

In new research by scientists in Finland (Hirskyj-Douglas & Kankaanpää, 2021; Piitulainen & Hirskyj-Douglas, 2020), white-faced saki monkeys were provided with sights and sounds that they could choose to control themselves. A tunnel-shaped structure equipped with sensors and a monitor or speakers was placed inside the monkeys’ enclosure. The device would play different videos or sounds (alternated weekly) only if a monkey chose to enter the tunnel. The monkeys used the video enrichment approximately five times per day in the study, with highest usage in the early morning. The sakis preferred watching earthworms in soil, a bowl of mealworms, and underwater fish over videos of forest, wild animals, abstract images, or no video. They had a strong preference for the sounds of traffic and silence over sounds of rain or electronic or zen music. This concept of “on-demand” enrichment is simple and effective and can readily be adapted to other species.

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