A short trip to London Zoo this week proved to be a refreshing change from our visits to zoos and theme parks in Thailand that have captive tigers. Sadly, many of the times we visit facilities in Thailand we prepare ourselves for the worst, expecting to see tigers in substandard conditions and suffering from poor welfare.
And so, it was a treat to see the tiger enclosure at London Zoo that houses the magnificent Sumatran male, Asim. His enclosure was a feast for our eyes, and we thought we would share what we appreciated about our trip with you. The enclosure was very big compared to many in Thailand. Asim had a lot of choice over his environment, with plenty of tall foliage that allows him to hide. This is an important element for many species held in captivity, especially animals kept in zoos or other venues where they are displayed in front of tourists. Providing the opportunity to hide is important for welfare as it helps reduce stress by allowing the animal to have some sort of control.
Another important aspect of environmental control is giving animals a choice about whether they want to be outside or inside their shelter. For Asim, he could choose to go to inside if the British weather got too much or he just wanted to be indoors away from prying tourist eyes. Asim has plenty of climbing opportunities, allowing him to display more natural behaviours. He could scratch his claws on multiple trees and climb up the very high log frame and sit atop to survey his domain. We observed him spending significant time at the top of this frame. When he wasn’t up high, Asim had the opportunity to use the good-sized pond in his enclosure, something that sometimes surprises people as a common-held belief is that like cats, tigers do not like water.
One of the most striking differences in Asim’s enclosure and the enclosures that we routinely see in Thailand was the substrate on the floor. Asim has plenty of grass of varying length and areas of mud, but we are all too used to seeing barren concrete floors, which makes for a pretty miserable existence for the tigers living on them. Whilst they may be easier to clean, a wet concrete floor can make tigers pads very raw and sore as their paws were not designed to live on such surfaces. In addition to the lack of opportunity to dig or partake in a simple pleasure such as smelling the grass, barren floors do not offer any environmental enrichment, which we explain in more detail now. Providing mental and physical stimulation is crucial for the welfare of captive held animals. We could see plenty of enrichment in Asim’s enclosure. This included feeding enrichment, where Asim would have to jump high up on a wooden pole to reach a piece of meat on top. Food can also be scattered, of different varieties or hidden inside objects so that the animal has to work to get to the food. We also saw tyres and balls that Asim could play with, important both for his physical health and for his spirit in having a fun activity to do. You may have heard that London Zoo suffered tragedy last year when Melati, a tigress was killed after being introduced to Asim too early, after just ten days. Initially, keepers believed that the pair were ready to be introduced after both animals were greeting each other through the fence with a “chuff”. Asim’s enclosure was next to Melati, and both tigers could see each other through the glass. Many believe that tigers are solitary animals, but captive tigers do sometimes like to socialise particularly with conspecifics that they have grown up with. In the case of Asim’s enclosure, we liked the glass because it gives the opportunity for the tigers to see their neighbour. It can be frustrating for tigers to smell and hear another tiger nearby but not be able to see it.
Overall, our trip reminded us what can be achieved in achieving good welfare for captive tigers. The careful consideration of the details needed to provide a good environment, such as providing choice and enrichment, enables tigers like Asim to have a good and natural as possible life.