hi! i visited the cincinnati zoo twice last ye…

hi! i visited the cincinnati zoo twice last year because they’re the closest zoo with one of my favorite animals – the pallas cat. i thought they were a good zoo from some reading i’d done, but both times i visited ALL the cats were pacing. the pallas cat was walking the same path around his enclosure nonstop. that has to be bad, right? do you know anything about how the zoo treats their animals?

I see where your concern is coming from – the dominant narrative in anti-zoo messaging is that pacing = bad. Good news is, not all times that an animal appears to be pacing are actually pacing, nor is all actual pacing a stereotypical behavior. I don’t know anyone who works with the Pallas cats at Cincinnati, but I’ve visited and I’m friendly with a least one of their keeper staff in other areas, so I’ll talk about it in generalities for this post. 

One thing it’s really important to understand about cats, specifically, is that it is natural for them to patrol their territories. Felids in human care are going to walk the edges of their space as part of that patrol behavior – and that, in and of itself, isn’t unnatural or bad. Because they’re in a smaller space than a wild territory, the behavior is simply much more visible than an animal surveying a territory that takes days to traverse.  

Second, animals may “pace” on exhibit for a whole bunch of reasons that are not the expression of a stereotypic behavior. The most common is anticipatory behavior, and it can be triggered by stuff you might not be able to figure out as a guest. Keeper presence – either visual or auditory – is a big one, because that might mean food or enrichment! Animals will often pace in front of shift doors if they hear staff in the back area of the exhibit, but to guests who can’t hear what they’re cueing off of, it just looks like they’re worked up over nothing. Similarly, something exciting or scare near the exhibit (a service dog, a limping guest) can also cause pacing. Sometimes, animals will also pace if they’re separated from an exhibit-mate they’re bonded with – like when one has to go for a vet appointment. 

So, the narrative about all pacing = stereotypic behavior = boredom and bad welfare is super simplistic and pretty incorrect. A good way to check, if you’re concerned, is to look at where they’re pacing and what time of day it is. If they’re at the front of the exhibit and keyed in on something, it might be a keeper doing a talk. If they’re in front of / near a door at the back, there’s probably a keeper back there. If it’s the end of the day and they’re super active in general, it’s likely close to dinnertime and they’re getting antsy waiting for food. 

I would guess what you observed at Cincinnati is going to be one of the above options, rather than any sort of problematic pacing. One of the big cues for that is that you described all the cats being active! Wild cats, like domestic cats, sleep a majority of the day. It’s very unlikely that they’d all be active and just happening to be expressing a stereotypical behavior simultaneously, y’know? It’s much more likely that if they’re all up and about, they’re waiting on something interesting to happen that is predictable enough they can anticipate it and get excited.