Although food is a staple, many animals enjoy it more than is difficult to obtain.
We will explore this phenomenon in depth, evaluating the possible causes of the so-called counter-charge and review some of the studies underlying the existence of this curious mechanism in many animal species.
What is counter-loading?
The concept of counter-loading refers to animal behavior by which certain individuals show a propensity to choose those foods which require them to make a certain effort to obtain, To the detriment of others who are at their disposal without any work to do with them.
There is no exact word in Spanish to translate this term, although a rough translation may be against the free supply, and it is that the basis of this concept is the decision that the animal takes before the dilemma , precisely between a direct and free supply, before another in which it must include assets to obtain it. In counter-loading, the animal chooses the second option.
Is is a concept developed by researcher Glen Jensen, expert in comparative psychology, The branch that studies the similarities and differences between human behavior and animal behavior. This psychologist developed a study in 1963 where he discovered the phenomenon of counter-loading. In this study, Jensen used two hundred lab rats.
He placed all these animals in a frame where they had a container with food, with free access, but he also added a distribution device to the cage, with the same type of food. This device would release food if the rat squeezed a lever. The logic would be to think that the rats wouldn’t even bother trying to get the dispenser to work, because they had food in the containers.
But it was not. These animals have shown that they prefer this food which they somehow earn with their own efforts. This is an absolutely clear example of what countercharge means. Some might wonder if this is not an exclusive behavior of rats. Other researchers wondered the same thing, so they started a whole series of experiments with other animal species.
Thanks to that, today we know that counter-loading is a fairly widespread behavior throughout the animal kingdom, As tests with species as diverse as mice, gerbils, different types of fish, various different birds, bears, wolves, giraffes, monkeys and even large primates, like chimpanzees, prefer to earn a living with their efforts. Does that mean, then, that this is a common behavior in all animals?
Rather, in almost all animals. There is at least one species that prefers others to provide them with food instead of having to make an effort to obtain it. This animal could not be other than the domestic cat. However, we can say that in most of the species studied if the so-called counter-loading is observed.
Counterloading in captive animals
Although Jensen was the first to use the word contrafreeloading, the truth is that, a long time ago, other researchers had already examined the principles of this behavior. For example, Robert Yerkes, in 1925, was already talking about the importance of using mechanisms that mixed play with food in the artificial environments created by primates living in captivity.
In other words, what he was proposing was precisely practice counter-recharging so that animals have elements that allow them to stay active and somehow earn food. This is exactly what associations like the Rainfer Foundation Chimpatia are doing today, a sanctuary for rescued primates, having a second chance after suffering the difficulties of exploitation.
Rainfer is common use environmental enrichment techniques in which animals must harness their intellect to get hold of the food. In summer, for example, they are provided with blocks of ice with frozen fruit inside, with the dual function of refrigerating them and giving them the challenge of removing the rich piece that is trapped after the layer of ice.
At other times, the food ration hidden in crates or at various places in the enclosure is prepared for them, so that the animals have to move around and participate in the search and are not limited to being served the support. in a container. In this case, we cannot say that this is exactly a case of counter-loading, because for that they should also have the other option available.
But the reality is that when this happens, animals tend to choose the option that involves moderate exertion. It would be a counter-load.
In many zoos, this type of action is also commonly used, as they directly provide food for many animals, but also place other parts in devices that need to be handled.
Animals mainly choose this second option because it is an enrichment for them in a generally quite routine environment. But what are the reasons for this decision?
There are several explanations which attempt to make logical sense of the phenomenon of counter-loading. Let’s see the most important of them.
1. Primacy of information
The first cause that has been assessed is related to what is called the information primacy theory. The explanation used by this theory is that, thanks to counter-loading, the animal in question obtains relevant information about the functioning of the environment in which it lives, Thus reducing uncertainty.
2. Natural behaviors
Another explanation is that it is based on the resemblance to the natural environment of the animal species that we are studying and on the situation in which it finds itself when choosing the counter-loading. A wild animal, in its habitat, rarely finds food gathered in one place without having to do anything. On the contrary, he must fight, seek, hunt.
Therefore, when in captivity, it can reproduce, in part, these behaviors, choosing to strive for food.
3. Environmental enrichment
The third theory has already been mentioned in part in the previous point. It’s about environmental stimulation to come up with a challenge in a scenario that usually doesn’t contain a lot of variation. That way, I wouldn’t get the stimulation I would have in the natural habitat, but of course, it would be even a lot more stimulating than finding food in a bowl every morning, with no change.
In other words. What the counterload would do would be allay the boredom that some animals may be subjected to, especially those that do not experience variations in their enclosure.
The way to apply it
We already know much better what the concept of counter-charge means. We have seen examples and appreciated some of the possible explanations. Now let’s focus on how we can achieve a situation where the animal can benefit from the benefits of this mechanism.
Obviously, every species is different, and so are individuals of the same species, but the patterns are generally similar for many of them. To introduce counter-loading in a domestic animal or animal living in captivity, it is necessary to start by placing only part of the food which corresponds to it in the stressful situation.
Outraged, we must be measured in the challenge we offer themBecause if the food is practically inaccessible, the animal will become frustrated and quickly give up the task, moving towards “free” food (available without effort). This is why it is important to adjust the difficulty of the exercise.
Later and as the animal gets used to it, we can increase the obstacles and make it more and more difficult to access food. We will also increase the amount, so that the reward is in line with the effort you have to make. At this point it’s still counter-loading as you still have the option of heading to the food dish which is the easiest way.
But, if the conditions have been designed correctly, we will see that the individual rejects this possibility and prefers the adventure involved in solving the problem he is facing in order to get the prize after completing the work expected of him. Continuing with this routine, we will reach the last phase, in which only the food will be provided in the form of a challenge, without the “free” container.
In this last phase, we would already be talking about a simple environmental enrichment but no cross-loading, because he would not have the possibility to choose, having removed the easy option. But it will not matter, because he will prefer the difficult. Unless it’s a cat.
- Inglis, IR, Forkman, B., Lazarus, J. (1997). Free food or earned food? A review of counter-load and a diffuse model. Animal behavior. Elsevier.
- Jensen, GD (1963). Preference to press the bar above “freelading” depending on the number of presses assigned. Journal of Experimental Psychology.
- Koffer, K., Coulson, G. (1971). Feline indolence: Cats prefer free foods to those produced in response. Psychonomic science.
- Osborne, SR (1977). The phenomenon of free food (counter-loading): review and analysis. Learning and behavior of animals. Springer.