Word of the Week: Zoochosis

CAUTION: The images and behaviors described below may be disturbing.

The word I chose this week is a new one: zoochosis. This word was coined by Bill Travers in 1992 to describe “the stereotypical behaviour of animals in captivity.
Stereotypic behaviour is defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function.” These behaviors do not occur with animals in the wild.  I’m sure that most of us who have visited zoos have observed at least one of the following behaviors  (I know I have):

pacing or circling the same path – this is seen in many animals, particularly wolves and big cats

tongue-playing and bar biting – seen especially in primates, involving continual licking, sucking or biting of the bars of their enclosure


neck twisting – unnatural movement of the neck, often flicking the head around or bending the neck back, seen in bears, giraffes, llamas and primates

head bobbing and swaying – standing in one place swaying the head and neck or the whole body from side to side or up and down, most commonly found in bears and elephants

rocking – sitting, maybe hugging the legs, rocking forward and back; seen in primate species

self-mutilation – the animal grooming itself excessively, causing feathers or hair to fall out; biting or chewing on legs or tail; or hitting its head against a wall


An elephant in extreme stress leans its head against a pole.

Other behaviors involve regurgitating and playing or eating feces.

Zoochosis is thought to be caused by stress due to living in a confined space; separation from its natural habitat, such as being fed a diet that is not natural to its wild state and living in an alien climate; enforced idleness; direct control by humans; loss of life in normal social groups; and drugs and medical fertility control.


Reading about cases of zoochosis, I feel like never visiting another zoo again! I used to absolutely love zoos, but in the last few years, I find that I alternate between enjoying watching the animals and being depressed about the animals’ confinement. I have seen many examples of “zoochotic” behavior, especially the pacing and circling.

To learn more about zoochosis, check out these web sites:

Care2 has a 1/2 hour documentary “Zoochosis” that explains what happens to animals in captivity.

OneGreenPlanet has the same documentary.

bornfree.org.uk has a comprehensive article and short video clips of each of the behaviors exhibited by animals suffering from zoochosis.

Although zoos have a role to play in breeding animals that would otherwise go extinct and also have educational programs and research to benefit wild animals, it is impossible for them to replicate the environments of species who come from places as far away as Antarctica or equatorial South America. And think about it: Would you want to be confined and have people staring at you? Why is it considered normal for people in cities all over the world to observe animals whose native habitat may be the savannas of Africa or the Amazon jungle? Why not go to petting zoos where there are species that are native to one’s own habitat – such as farm animals.

These are questions that make me think about whether zoos have a positive role to play to protect and preserve animal species or whether to visit them at all.




8 thoughts on “Word of the Week: Zoochosis

  1. As soon as I saw the term, zoo psychosis. I knew exactly where you were going. .
    It is heartbreaking to see caged animals go crazy.
    Zoos are prisons for animals
    But the real world is a holocaust for them.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Cindy! That’s why I’m torn between advocating for or against zoos. They do some good work and many have improved the conditions the animals live in. I did go to St. Louis Zoo this week and saw only one sign of zoochosis (the cheetah was pacing in a circle), but many of the animals were sleeping. However, the zoo has a sea lion show which they will soon discontinue, and I heard Sea World is also discontinuing their orca shows. So that’s a little progress at least.

    2. That’s why zoos need to reform their system, wildlife reserves, and refuges have it right. Changing the layout, and spending their profits on global wildlife education and rehab efforts.

  2. The same happened to me: I had great souvenirs of the last time I visited a zoo as a child and was really excited to visit a new one during a recent trip, but then I could only notice how all the animals were depressed and how the cages were small. Zoochosis was everywhere, making me hate those enterprises forever.

  3. I’m so sorry about your negative experience, Audrey! The animals fare better when their enclosures are expanded, but that is not always possible. The St. Louis Zoo has a big tract of land that they are planning to use to expand the zoo.

  4. Precisely why we do not go to zoos. Every single cage with grassy area has a ‘path’ that those poor souls circle,usually very noticeable if you look for it. I cannot take the abuse..

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