It’s tough to know what drugs zoos and parks use to keep their animals calm. The zoos themselves usually aren’t talking. Some trainers and researchers do reveal what animals are “on,” and the news, while troubling, isn’t all bad.

Blackfish’s Legacy

The documentary Blackfish drew attention to SeaWorld and the way animal abuses there were swept under the rug in the interests of a good show. Since the film came out, more of the details of what happens behind the scenes have come to light, including a long list of drugs that the park would give its orcas in an attempt to keep their behavior under control.

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This practice is not confined to SeaWorld. Many zoos give their animals drugs to reduce harmful behaviors. The question is whether these drugs are a way to treat specific medical problems, or if the zoos are the problem and the drugs are a way of covering it up. The answer isn’t entirely cut-and-dried. Whether a drug is a help or a cover-up depends on why it’s used, on what percent of a population it’s used on, and for how long it’s used.

Anti-Psychotics

Thorazine made its non-human debut in 1971, when a 400-pound gorilla was kept for half a year in a cage just barely big enough for him to stretch his arms out in. His keepers drugged his Coca-Cola every morning. Since then, anti-psychotics have been given to monkeys, to sea lions, to bears, and to birds. Haloperidol is a commonly used anti-psychotic, and it’s used in three types of situations.

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The first situation is the most egregious. A trainer at SeaWorld revealed that growing male orcas were dosed with anti-psychotics not to keep them calm, but to tamp down their testosterone levels. These drugs have been shown to decrease testosterone levels in adolescent boys. By decreasing an orca’s testosterone, the trainers hoped to keep him calm and manageable, but according to the trainer, it also kept the orca “out of it,” most of the time.

Some anti-psychotics get prescribed for chronic behavioral conditions. Marine mammals act out in various ways. Monkeys bite their fingers. Sea lions maul their own sides. Walruses and whales compulsively regurgitate their food. If the animal’s situation can’t be changed (and some lab animals can never be released into the wild), the only way to keep the animal alive and stop it from hurting itself is a regular dose. On the other hand, some animals could be taken off drugs if they were given better enclosures or just released into the wild.

Not all animals need continuing doses of anti-psychotic medication. In some cases, animals are put under stress — they’re moved to a new facility or gain a new companion in their enclosure — and need a dose of medication to calm them down or break them of bad behaviors. A single dose of haloperidol is often given to dogs and cats to relax them so they can be prepared for surgery. Zoo animals that are, temporarily, in new enclosures or who need to be separated from their group for a little while are often given a single dose to keep them calm until their habitat can be returned to normal. Anti-psychotics also seem to break birds of the habit of pecking at, or plucking feathers from, their companions. These doses can last for a few days, or for a few months, before they’re gradually eased down to nothing when the aggressive behavior doesn’t return.

Anti-Depressants

Anti-depressants are another commonly-prescribed medication. Just as with anti-psychotics, there are cases of animals, particularly bears, being prescribed antidepressants as a way to cover up the deficiencies in their environments. There are also times when antidepressants provide needed temporary relief.

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Look for the reason many humans are miserable, and you’ll often find other humans. Similar things happen with similar primates. When a violent and unsocialized gorilla was introduced into a group of gorillas at a zoo in Boston, he made a habit of chasing and assaulting one of the older female gorillas until she was constantly anxiety-prone. Paxil helped her calm down somewhat — although the only thing that helped permanently was separating the violent male from the rest of the group, which made him miserable.

There are times when changing the environment alone won’t help. One brown bear, kept in chains in a dark basement by a private collector, was traumatized and unable to interact when he was taken to a specialized sanctuary. It took Prozac for the bear to drop his anxiety, venture out of his small enclosure, and interact with the world.

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A polar bear, housed in poor zoo conditions for some time, developed a habit of pacing. She would pace for hours, over half the time she was conscious, and she could not deviate from the routine even when she evidently wanted to. New keepers tried to tempt her into new patterns by enriching her environment with toys, natural grass, and special treats, but she was locked in a pattern. Again, Prozac helped her stop pacing and develop an interest in the world around her.

Is it ethical to drug zoo animals? In certain cases, it probably is. If we accept that animals and humans have similar neurological set-ups, and we accept that humans occasionally need antidepressants or anti-psychotics, then animals occasionally need drugs too. But there is a difference between helping an animal adjust, or dealing with an neurological outlier, and numbing a whole population to the point where it is indifferent to its own miserable circumstances. Exactly where the line is drawn is up to us to decide.

Top Image: Robert Pittman, NOAA, Sea Lion Image: Jason Hollinger, Bear Image: National Digital Library

[Sources: Animal Madness, Smiling Bears.]