At the edge of the northern Ontario wilderness, three orphaned polar bears roam the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, a five-acre tract of woods, rock and natural lake.
Although they are not free to roam beyond the perimeter of the conservation and public education center, the bears are faring better than many of their counterparts in the wild who face starvation as prime seal hunting grounds melt into the warming sea.
Soon, the bears will enjoy even greater freedom. With the use of “smart technology” under development and some new, learned behavior, the bears will be able to control their levels of light, temperature, amount of mist they get in the summer—and maybe even their playmates—with the thrust of a snout in a laser beam.
The brains behind this innovation is APA Fellow Suzanne MacDonald, PhD, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, who has recruited 11 undergraduate engineering students to help develop the unique technology.
It’s just the latest project for the animal behaviorist, who has studied a wide range of animals around the globe in an effort to help threatened species survive.
“Large carnivores particularly have a hard time in captivity because they typically range over many, many kilometers in a day,” says MacDonald. “Replicating their environment in captivity is impossible, so what I think will help is to give them control over what they do.”
Psychologists, she says, have a special role to play in creating and monitoring habitats—be they wild or human-built—where threatened species can survive with a minimum of disruption to their natural behaviors.
“We can’t just go, oh no this is terrible,” she says. “We have to actually do something about it. We have to go in and take our expertise … and help in the real world.”
For MacDonald that imperative has included a mix of behavioral research and conservationism. She has studied elephants, lions, gorillas, rhinos, marmots, orangutans and hyenas in countries including Kenya, Costa Rica and South Africa. But it may be her volunteer work with animals in captivity that has brought her the greatest satisfaction.
MacDonald has been the on-call behaviorist at the Toronto Zoo for 26 years, where she acquired a deep fondness for and understanding of orangutans. The primates love to be silly, she says, recalling her first shared joke with another species. She hid an object in her hand, then did a big reveal, which sent the orangutan howling.
“They go, ‘Aaaaaah!’ Just like kids do,” she says, throwing out her hands and grinning widely. “To do that for the first time, you go, this is the greatest thing in the world. I’m having an awesome time with this other mind.”
Orangutans also love to look at photos on a computer screen, a technology that is increasingly in use at zoos around the world. “They love it,” says MacDonald. “You can get them to scroll through photos and you can tell which photo they like by how long they spend looking at it.”
Number one with orangutans? “They love the babies,” she says.
MacDonald came by her love of animals honestly. Raised in northern Alberta, she grew up with cats, dogs, horses, ducks, rabbits and a constant backdrop of wildlife. “I’m Canadian and animals are kind of in our blood,” she says, adding conspiratorially, “I actually prefer the company of other species. That’s pretty bad!”
After undergraduate studies in zoology and genetics, she earned her PhD in animal learning and behavior from the University of Alberta and began studying the unique quirks of how animals think.
It was during a postdoc visit to a now-defunct zoo in Vancouver that MacDonald first began approaching cognitive research as one way to promote psychological well-being in captive animals.
“The zoo was terrible,” she recalls. “The primates had nothing to do so they used to abuse each other.” Including, apparently, biting each other’s fingers off. “I was so upset by that,” she says. “You can’t just give them food in a lump in the corner and a place to live and expect that primates are going to be happy. They’re like us. You’ve got to give them things to do.”
MacDonald upbraided the zoo owner and made a laundry list of recommendations, including housing them in normal social groups and giving them tasks to do, including searching for food. He incorporated them all, and MacDonald used that work as the basis for some of her earliest primate research studies.
Modern zoos have come a long way since then, and MacDonald says zoo staff has been among “the best people I’ve ever worked with.” Still, she says, each species reacts differently to captivity and requires a depth of cognitive understanding that psychologists are uniquely trained to provide.
“Now that zoos are probably the last refuge for many, many species, we’d better figure out how to keep them at least sane and breeding and as happy as possible,” MacDonald says, adding: “And it can be done, it really can.”
A spatial theme runs through much of MacDonald’s research. She has studied the spatial abilities of a variety of primates—from migrating elephants to raccoons to human babies.
Her ongoing research on roaming raccoons in the city of Toronto has earned her renown in the public press, including a documentary on her research called “Raccoon Nation” on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Nature of Things.
“There are so many more raccoons in people’s backyards than they thought,” she says. “In one backyard I have counted over 50 raccoons in one night.”
She is conducting a new study this spring comparing urban vs. rural raccoons to get data on her hypothesis that Toronto is developing so-called “uber-raccoons,” city slickers who have developed more wiles than their country cousins.
“The differences I’ve already found between the adults in the city and country were quite substantial. So I want to find out if those are innate or not,” she says.
Not all of MacDonald’s research has gone as planned. There was the time in Kenya a couple of years ago when she was testing vanilla as an attractant for elephants. It was hoped that vanilla could be used to entice the pachyderms to migrate away from crops, roads and other human encroachments that might engender danger to either.
Trouble was, she had inadvertently dosed herself and suddenly found a bull elephant barreling toward her. “You go, ‘Oh my, I have misread the situation and now I’m going to die,’” she says, laughing. “I did at one point recite my will into the video camera but luckily the elephant stopped just in front of me and I was fine.”
Watching a woodpecker land on a tall tree in her backyard, MacDonald becomes more serious.
“The wild isn’t wild anymore,” she muses. “The places in Kenya where you go, ‘Wow this is extraordinary,’ is only so because it’s fenced. Places in the wild are becoming like a zoo. And that’s really going to be the way it is.”
This blurring between captivity and the wild, she says, is an irreparable consequence of environmental degradation caused by humans. “I don’t know what to say anymore,” she says. “It seems like you’re trying to drain the ocean with a thimble. Still, you gotta do something.”
She thinks psychologists must play a much larger role: “We learn how to work in a lab, and work with control and variables. And we manipulate them. Well, the wild is becoming like that … we are used to dealing with those settings but we just have to do it in a much larger sense. We can extrapolate and put it into real life.”