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Polar Bear Picnic

The Wilder, the Better

Doctor Fish

Tuna in the Tank

Zoos as Arks

Return to the Wild

Viewer Challenge
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The New Zoos: The Wilder, the Better

Frontiers visits Toronto's Metro Zoo, where psychologist Suzanne MacDonald shows how zookeepers enrich animal habitats by mimicking aspects of life in the wild. We meet some playful, intelligent orangutans participating in activities designed to find out how they think and to keep them mentally active. Then we observe how animal behaviorists try to encourage Saki monkeys and gibbons to behave more naturally.

Curriculum Links
Related Frontiers Shows and Activities
Spatial Memory in Primates
Activity: Mirror Recognition



nervous system

animal behavior, primates


spatial memory


Scientific Breakthroughs in Germany (Show 402): Bird Navigation and Mapping


One of the biggest challenges in today's zoos and animal parks is figuring out ways to engage the animals' mental and emotional selves. One technique frequently used to challenge the minds of animals in captivity is hiding food. Having animals search for food, instead of delivering it to them like room service, simulates the work they do naturally in the wild to forage and find their food.

Primates have a spatial memory that helps them remember where food might be found. Like monkeys and orangutans, we too are primates and have a powerful memory of locations. You use spatial memory for playing card games like "Concentration," navigating your way through a maze or a mall or skiing a downhill course. Can you identify other ways your spatial memory is useful?


Psychologist Suzanne MacDonald, who you meet on Frontiers, is working on several other projects with primates. In one of her projects, she is studying the mirror self-recognition of orangutans. Similar studies of other primates are thought-provoking and somewhat controversial.

To study self-awareness in primates, scientists give them mirrors. Try this mirror-recognition activity and you may be surprised to learn how your own sense of self can become distorted when a reflection doesn't match the sense of body position and movement.


Test your conscious sense of self with reflections in a mirror.

  • small round plastic mirror
  • glue gun and glue or fast-drying glue
  • two new unsharpened pencils
  1. Place a spot of glue on the unsharpened wooden end of a pencil. Quickly position the "sticky" wooden end in the center of a plastic mirror.

  2. Place another spot of glue on the unsharpened end of a second pencil. Stick this pencil to the other side of the mirror, directly aligned with the first pencil (as shown).

  3. When the glue is dry, grasp one pencil with each hand. Look at the mirror so that the reflection of your left hand replaces the spot where your right hand should be. Position the mirror so that it blocks out your view of your right hand.

  4. Now, while watching the reflection of the left hand in the mirror, slowly rotate your right hand. How does that feel?

  5. What happens when the information you detect with your eyes is contrary to the movements of your body? How can this observation be applied to the concept of self? How do you think an orangutan would react in this situation?
  1. Do you think your pets possess self-awareness or a sense of self? How could you tell? What happens when your pets see their reflections?

  2. As you watch this episode, look for and identify all the ways zoos are challenging and enriching animals psychologically.

  3. Suzanne MacDonald is also working with elephants, gorillas and marmosets. Visit Suzanne MacDonald's homepage to learn more.

  4. If you have a dog or cat, design an experiment that involves hiding food, similar to the way the food is hidden from the orangutans on the show. Does your pet remember where food is hidden?


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.