Lockdown has been tough on us all, not least because without stimulation everyone is frankly bored. At least we have TV to keep us entertained, turning to a multitude of on-demand streamers so we can choose our escapism each day.
For animals in captivity, lack of stimulation is a problem too, so computer scientists have created a solution, at least for the white-faced saki monkeys of Korkeasaari Zoo, Helsinki: their own on-demand video player. Yes, we’re going there – the first Amazon Prime-ate, if you will.
Researchers at Aalto University, in collaboration with the Zoo, have designed and built an on-demand video device that allows the monkeys to choose what they want to watch and when. Designed to enrich the lives of these small primates, the TV watching room – a box placed in their enclosure – allows the monkeys to activate it at their leisure.
Enrichment programs for captive animals (including digital devices) are not new, but few offer the opportunity or ability for the animals themselves to choose when and how they use a device even though, as the researchers point out, choice and control are well-known for promoting animal welfare.
In a study published in Animals, the researchers explore how primates choose to control these devices, what particular visual enrichments the monkeys choose, and how these videos affect their behavior.
'We were very much interested in how we can give animals control over their environment and especially how they can control technology," explained Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, lead author and visiting researcher at Aalto University. "Typically, when we use technology with animals, we use it on them, so we play them sounds or video, rather than giving them the option of controlling the technology themselves.'
So what does the discerning viewer watch in their monkey enclosure?
The saki monkeys were offered a choice of underwater sea life such as fish and jellyfish, wiggly worms, lush forests, other zoo animals, or abstract art.
The TV box came equipped with a monitor for watching plus cameras and sensors to monitor how they used it. By choosing to step into the box – effectively pressing play – the monkeys got to decide if they watched the video of the week. Although the researchers point out it's quite hard to say with certainty which videos the monkeys liked the most – there is no monkey Nielsen ratings or Rotten Tomatoes, after all – it appeared they chose to spend the most time watching the wiggly worms and the underwater scenes.
'We got interesting results," said Vilma Kankaanpää, co-author of the paper and Master's student at Aalto University. "First of all, we learned that the monkeys do pay attention to the screen; they watch it and touch it. We also suspect they recognize objects on the screen. One of the videos we had featured mealworms – an everyday meal for them. They actually tried to lick the screen and even went around the tunnel to see if the worms were behind it."
Unfortunately, Smell-O-Vision hasn't come to the primate world just yet, but there may have been a positive impact on the monkeys' well-being during the experiment. The researchers noted the monkeys scratched themselves significantly less when videos were available. Scratching can be a sign of stress in captive animals, so perhaps they found the underwater scenes soothing?
On the other hand, the same team tested out a similar device on white-faced saki monkeys last year that allowed them to choose which sounds they listened to and they showed a significant preference for traffic over the noise of the jungle. There's no accounting for taste.
However, the point is, the researchers say, that digital devices designed for animal enrichment should allow for control and choice performed by the animals themselves, letting them make the decision to activate it, and even choose the video or audio. Whether there's a remote-hogger amongst them they'll have to sort out themselves.