Exploring animal welfare

We previously looked at the core principles of expanding animal welfare through the ‘Three Parameters of Overall-Nutrition’ and similarly how we can further expand upon these 3 core parameters of life with the linked ‘Five Layers of Enrichment’. These were suggested as a reminder as being; Nutritional supply, place in the ecosystem, social, the senses and physical.

The Three Parameters of overall-nutrition being: 1. the energy that surrounds, 2. the energy that is ingested and 3. physical and mental enrichment are good explanatory holding terms for a wide series of provisions, cycles and processes but they do not at the face of it explore in enough detail the small changes that can be made in order to see ever advancing excellence in care. 

Rather, it is by keeping the ‘Three Parameters’ in mind and then drilling down into the subsequent world of the ‘Five layers’ that really helps us as keepers to find a structured base from which to conduct our research in order to ascertain the actual needs of the species that we keep. Yes it is by looking at the wild animal and then making pertinent measured changes within all of the five layers that we can indeed bring in safe and measured positive change.

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It is all very well suggesting that an animal requires food as an example, we all know this. But if we do not look at the types of food that it consumes and in the usual percentages of the wild diet, and we omit to seek to understand how these foods are gathered nor indeed what these foods have been eating/assimilating and exposed to themselves, we miss a critical pathways of provision and the animal can never be properly provided for nutritionally. 

What do I mean here? Well, we could assume that the Green Iguana Iguana iguana is totally herbivorous and therefore should be fed plants. We would be right. However, if we then classified that lettuce being a plant of interest and easy to obtain and it was then used as the sole food source throughout life, the animal would indeed suffer. In reality, we have a species that is indeed, well probably an obligate herbivore (I have seen no proof that the odd insect or other matter is not consumed) and indeed fairs well on plants. If we then start to look at the wild diet we will see that they graze on a vast wealth of leaves, barks, fruits, vegetables and flowers. 

A wide ranging plethora of foods all containing slightly differing nutritional values and all making up the ‘whole’ of the diet rather than isolated portions. Indeed, the Green Iguana would miss out if not fed flowers and the pollen that they carry. If we drill down into the truth and use the ‘Five layers’ we stand a much higher chance of providing a balanced healthy diet. This coupled with good levels of external energy, the provision water in the correct methods and we encourage movement. We will increase health through more accurate biological function.

One of the biggest groups of reptiles that are kept are the insectivores. Those species where the majority of nutrients found in the diet are gleaned from the active consumption of insects. Indeed, this covers almost all of the lizard species that are kept and even a few of the snakes. Insectivores have proliferated the earth for the simple reason that insects are nutritious and plentiful. 

True to form for reptiles, insectivores have adapted to thrive within the earth because of the earth’s bounty of invert life in terms of quantity available and range of species (diversity). There are very few reptiles that have become obligate and will only seek out and predate upon single insect species or single groups of insect species (some have adapted to predate upon slugs and snails only or have become quite obligate centipede feeders, but this is rare on the whole). 

No, rather these highly adapted animals will find sustenance from the wealth of invertebrates  that surround them and including very many species. When we speak about insects it is vital that we include all of the life stages also. Reptiles will readily consume crawling and flying adults, but they will also take developing young, grubs, caterpillars and chrysalis with equal gusto. When we combine this with the wealth of species available to them in the home nations, and with each species having differing nutritional values we start to understand the importance of looking at the ‘whole’ rather than the part.

Most insect eating species do not only take insects as they crawl and in the younger forms. Most will also relish those in adults that are also able to fly. Indeed, if you have spent any time watching wild reptiles feed you will have seen then jumping from the ground or leaping branch to branch as they collect flies and other flying insects. I myself have watched this in Ibiza, Malta, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Majorca and the UK. 

These smaller species of lizard will readily jump upwards and catch flies as they buzz past one after the other. The best displays I have seen were in Ibiza and Malta. This is only part of the story however as there are many forms of flying insect including flies, moths, butterflies and beetles. Again, travellers to the Mediterranean will have seen house geckos Hemidactylus turcicus or Moorish geckos Tarentola mauritanica catching moths and flies as they are attracted to wall lamps. You will find a gecko at almost every lamp wherever you go.

It is also well known that the larger species of Chameleon native to Madagascar will feed voraciously on a wealth of species of fruit beetles as they bumble around. Indeed some studies show how the differing gut contents of these beetles, containing full-spectrum carotenoids from a wealth of plants impact chameleon colour. Chameleons are apex predators with their famous ability to target eject the tongue in order to ensnare food. Food does not have to be still for this to occur, far from it. The largest species have even ben seen taking birds and other reptiles in this fashion.

Yes, we can increase both dietary variety and nutritional value by including flying species for almost all of our species. Moreover, we can greatly increase safe and natural enrichment of the mind and body as we also allow each species to accomplish their ‘job of work’ as given within the five layers of enrichment. Why, because when presented with a task that is within their own natural long term development animals have to think, plan and work to capture flying livefoods. 

The mind is inspired to do so as it is a natural developmental trait, the mind is activated in order to hunt which then leads to the movement of the body. This of course not only inspires the animal to move, but in doing so it increases blood flow and stimulates organ function. When we lock this all in together we will see a welcome increase in dietary variety, a lowering of stressors due to natural hunting and an increase in physical health. This is all very positive and natural, indeed it is ‘pre-programmed’ into many species. Subsequently, they should not miss out on these abilities.

You may think that this does not apply to your species as you have never seen the animal hunt off of the floor. Maybe we can refer to Chameleons once again, the introduction of flying livefood into the habitat of the chameleons, be that Panther, Yemen, Jacksons or a host of other species will show almost instantly that they are inspired to hunt in this way. I have yet to see a single case where flying livefoods did not inspire a marked positive change in the behaviour of an animal. I have seen case after case after case online and in stores where keepers have started to include flying livefoods of one sort or another and have been subsequently mesmerised by the physical change in behaviour of the animal.

So, what can we as effective and ethical keepers do to increase welfare in this way? Well we can research the species that we keep, ideally travel to see them go about their business in the wild and try to emulate this in a safe and measured way in captivity. This does not mean buying a tub of flighted locusts in order to prove to ourselves that this is not the case! Adult locusts can play a useful role in overall dietary variety, but they are not active flyers and are quite huge for most species. 

No, we are much better to use smaller insects from trusted clean sources such as Black soldier flies, wax moths, blue bottles, green bottles and any small fruit beetles that we can find. These will all readily take to the air and ‘activate’ that long developed ability to hunt and jump. Indeed, Black soldier flies are probably easiest to feed as they fly well but rather slowly, they are nutritionally balanced and are easily captured in the home if the odd escape happens. 

Pollen is mineral and sugar rich, contains aminos and certain vitamins, especially when part processed by bees. We miss an important natural provider if we do not include pollen in the right way. What could be more natural than lightly dusting flying and non-flying feeders with naturally occurring balanced minerals and pollen, it simply replicates and emulates the wild.

I can only suggest that you try this in practise. Speak to your insect supplier about Flying livefood availability. Try feeding these insects with your animal and see if you too see a change. If you do, as most of us indeed have, you will be able to further expand your dietary provision and subsequently increase the stimulation of the body and mind of your species. This will in turn allow you to both provide for and experience your animal in a new way and with a greater depth of understanding.

By John Courteney-Smith, bird and reptile manager at Arcadia Products

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