Zoochosis is a term used to refer to a range of psychological problems associated with animals kept in prolonged captivity. This term is most widely used by animal rights activists, who argue for better living conditions in zoos, if not abolishing these facilities entirely. Among zookeepers and conservation professionals, there is a growing awareness of captivity-related psychological problems among animals, and most reputable zoos and conservation parks today have extensive programs in place to enrich the environment of their animals in the hopes of avoiding the onset of such problems.
The word is a portmanteau of “zoo” and “psychosis,” reflecting the fact that some captive animals do indeed become psychotic. More commonly, zoo animals exhibit signs of extreme depression and related psychological conditions as they struggle with the confines of their captivity. Zoochosis can occur in both captive-bred and wild-caught animals, and it appears to be fundamentally rooted in boredom and frustration. The condition is made much worse in zoos with poor living conditions or abusive keepers.
A number of symptoms can suggest that an animal is suffering from a psychological problem. As a general rule, multiple abnormal behaviors in any animal are used as indicators to suggest that the animal is experiencing difficulties, and these behaviors vary, depending on the species. Rocking, swaying, self mutilation, excessive licking, bar biting, pacing, circling, chewing, and neck twisting are all linked with zoochosis, as are abnormal eating habits, such as anorexia.
There are a variety of ways in which this problem can be addressed. Some animal rights advocates feel that animals should not be kept in captivity, using psychological problems as an argument to encourage zoos and conservation parks to release their animals. This is not always an option, however, as many zoos and conservation parks work with endangered species, and releasing the animals could condemn them to death, either because their native habitat is to damaged or because the animals are not capable of surviving on their own.
Building better habitats is one way to help prevent zoochosis, putting an emphasis on natural environments for zoo animals. Most zoos also enrich their enclosures with toys, puzzles, and learning games to keep their animals active and interested, and some have started creating more natural exhibits with a range of species, allowing animals to interact more naturally. Zookeepers may also engage with their animals directly, playing games with them to stimulate their minds and bodies.