Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

The science on suffering: Inappropriate social groupings and isolation (1)

Posted: 17 May 2006

4. Inappropriate social groupings and isolation

It is vitally important to house species in appropriate group structures. For many species social living provides more benefits than simply finding food and avoiding predation, it is a major source of stimulation. The social environment of many species represents a constant source of complex mental stimulation, the complexity and variety of which we could never hope to replace by any form of environmental enrichment (Young, 2003).

Changing social groupings and dynamics, removing an animal for training, performance or transport can lead to periods of social isolation, or can bring animals into contact with new groups. Often individual animals are exchanged between circuses or lent to another circus for a season resulting in long term disruption of social groups.

Social species such as elephants are often kept in isolation, such is the case with Anne the elephant (the last remaining elephant in a UK circus), while animals that are solitary, such as tigers, are often kept in groups (Nevil & Friend, 2003).

4.1 Social Isolation and Separation from Companions

The detrimental effects of social deprivation and separation have been widely documented in many species and are known to cause behavioural and physiological indications of stress (Tarou et al., 2000).

  • During a study of social separation in giraffes, a resident male was removed from his two female companions. The removal of the male resulted in the females showing protest behaviours, including increased activity, stereotypical behaviour, and increased contact behaviour with each other. They also showed decreased habitat utilisation. These results supported the findings of studies previously carried out in other species, particularly non-human primates, where the first change in behaviour is protest, characterised by increases in vocalisations, locomotion and stereotypical behaviour, as well an contact and clinging if the animal is housed with peers during the separation. Giraffes are not known to be highly social animals in the wild, yet their aversion to this kind of social separation proves that a complex social structure is not a prerequisite for social attachment (Tarou et al., 2000).
  • Spectacled bears have been documented displaying stereotypic repetitive head-tossing behaviours as a result of social frustration when they were prevented from interacting with other bears that were in close proximity to them (Fischbacher & Schmid, 1999).
  • In the wild elephants live in groups and display complex social behaviour. The natural grouping of both African and Asian elephants is of a family unit and the social bonds between the members of the family are very strong (Macdonald, 2004). Such family units are not possible in the circus environment where elephant groupings are varied and changeable. Supporting this, is a study on circus elephants where it was found that the limited opportunity for social contact was the principle causal factor in the female Asian elephant’s stereotypy (Kirkden & Broom, 2002).
  • Piglets, when isolated from others, show increased frequency of sitting and decreased time spent active, increased frequency of escape attempts, decreased frequency of play and increased frequency of pawing behaviour and a lower degree of interest in novel objects; all of which changes are considered to reflect a negative impact on the piglets’ welfare (Herskin & Jensen, 2000).
  • Social separation in cattle is known to induce struggling and large increases in vocalisation, heart rate and plasma cortisol concentrations. The mere presence of other cattle is sufficient to prevent struggling and vocalisation, regardless of peer identity, a finding that shows that a non-specific attachment can develop between individuals and their peers (Boissy & Le Neindre, 1997).

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