Writtle College Animal Studies students’ intriguing dissertations!

May 2015
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(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

Can you entertain a hyena with a fruit kebab? How do you clicker train a pig? Do cats and pumas play in the same way?

These are some of the questions asked by third year Animal Studies students at Writtle College in their dissertations this year.

Can you entertain a hyena with a fruit kebab?

A study of the effects of food based enrichment on the behaviour of captive Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) - Chloe Askew

Chloe, 20, from Upminster, used three different types of enrichment involving food to see how it affected the behaviour of the five hyenas at Colchester Zoo. Presenting food in a novel way is found to enrich animals’ environments by encouraging them to replicate behaviours in the wild.

The BSc (Hons) Animal Management student used cardboard boxes, 'fake prey animals' (boxes painted and built to resemble animals such as zebras) and fruit kebabs, which were big branches used as a skewer for meats and fruits such as melons.

She said: “The study overall increased the hyenas’ activity levels, so they spent less time asleep. They were also more social towards each other, less aggressive and generally behaved more naturally. This demonstrates an important increase in the welfare of these animals.

“There is currently a lack of studies in captive spotted hyenas, so this research may prove useful as a basis in deciding what kind of enrichment to use.”

How do you clicker train a pig?

Clicker training pigs – Ashley King

Ashley’s dissertation was about whether it is possible to clicker train pigs. Clicker training is an animal training method commonly used with dogs based on marking desirable behaviour and rewarding it. Ashley wanted to see if there are any differences in learning between males and females as well as between two different age groups.

The BSc (Hons) Animal Science student used 40 pigs - 20 were four weeks old and 20 were 10 weeks old and there were 10 males and 10 females in each group. Ashley, 21, from Madrid, trained them to do two tasks - target training and getting them to back up at command.

For target training, the pigs had to approach a cone and when Ashley said “touch” and pointed, they had to walk up to it and nose it - only then would they get their treat. She gave out 20 treats in each session and recorded how long it took each pig to carry out the task 20 times, so she could compare the differences.

She found that the younger boars (males) were the worst at the task to start with but improved the most and ended up being the best overall. The older gilts (females) were very good throughout the whole training session, and came second in performance, and the older boars were third. The young gilts needed the longest training session so were the worst out of them all.

Ashley said: “My goal was to prove that pigs are more intelligent than they are given credit for! This study can aid their welfare as it shows how you can improve their living conditions. Young pigs often receive toys for enrichment but this study shows that enrichment could also have a big impact on older pigs’ welfare.”

Do cats and pumas play in the same way?

To play or not to play? A comparative study of small exotic felids and domestic cats – Elizabeth Moss

Elizabeth, 21, from Gillingham, Kent, investigated whether domestic and wild cats interact and play with a toy in the same way.

She used nine domestic cats and eight small exotic felids (four servals, a puma, a caracal, a Eurasian lynx and a rusty spotted cat). She used a domestic cat toy for the cats and a bigger version she created for the big cats (small exotic felids) at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Smarden, Kent. She placed either toy in a room or enclosure and observed their interactions.

She said: “From my results, I have found that small exotic felids play more than domestic cats, but that both groups play in the same way; the most common form of play was batting the toy with their paw.

“I’ve proved that their method of play is the same. This means that zoos could use domestic cat toys more as tools to encourage play in captive small felids – a cheap and easy way to enrich their lives. I’ve found research that suggests play is a key indicator and promoter of welfare in animals, so play is good all round!”

Dr Jonathan Amory, Principal Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, said: “We had 44 students complete their Animal Science dissertations this year, ranging from behaviour of zoo and companion species to important studies of farm animal health management. Writtle students work well with our industry partners and these projects provide the employability skills that makes them so well sought after by employers.”

• To find out more about the BSc (Hons) Animal Science and BSc (Hons) Animal Management degrees at Writtle College - which are accredited by the Society of Biology – please visit www.writtle.ac.uk