Humans maintain wild animals in zoological parks for the purposes of education, conservation, research, and recreation. However, abnormal behaviors may develop in animals housed in human-made environments, if those environments do not allow them to carry out their natural behaviors (such as swimming, climbing, stalking, and predation). Captive environments in zoological parks often do not provide for natural behaviors due to spatial constraints and negative public reaction. Tigers (Panthera tigris) present a difficult case; they have large home ranges in the wild and natural predatory hunting behaviors that are difficult to provide for in captivity.
As the numbers of wild tigers decline, captive breeding programs have become a major focus of the zoo community, which magnifies the importance of research on tiger husbandry. A body of research exists on small felids, but little, if any, has focused on tigers. This thesis presents an analysis of the effects of the captive environment on the behaviors of 18 captive Bengal and Siberian tigers in four zoological parks in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Certain animal characteristics (such as subspecies, and age) were also related to behavior. Several characteristics of the captive environment had statistically significant effects on stereotypic and exploratory behaviors of tigers: shade availability, the presence of a body of water, cage size, the presence of a conspecific, vegetation, environmental enrichment, and substrate type. There were significant differences in the behaviors of the two subspecies studied, but the reason for the differences are unclear.
The results of this study showed clearly that tigers kept in more natural and complex enclosures performed less stereotypic pacing (unnatural behavior), and more exploratory (natural) behaviors than those housed in less natural enclosures. Reducing the stress level in captive tigers will enhance the animals’ overall physical and psychological well being, which will in turn increase the success of captive breeding programs. These results suggest that captive tigers should be housed in large enclosures containing natural substrate and vegetation, water pools, ample shade, a variety of resting locations, and a variety of enrichment items.