Apparently, if you set it up, they will run.
“A pair of researchers in the Netherlands has found that if a running wheel is placed outdoors in a natural setting, wild animals will come and run on it…. Scientists, researchers and animal rights advocates have argued over the years about the nature of mice running on wheels in their cages. Rights activists claim the running is a form or neurotic behavior brought about by living in the confines of a small cage. Some researchers, on the other hand, have suggested that the mice seemed to like, or enjoy running on the wheel, and even exhibited unhappy behavior if a wheel was removed.”
Hands down, this is my favorite research article of the year so far. Neurophysiologists Johanna Meijer and Yuri Robbers set out to study wheel-running behavior by animals in the wild to test the theory that running on a wheel was a neurotic response to being in captivity.
They made hundreds of thousands of observations of animals (mostly mice, but other animals, too — even slugs!) using the wheel, and concluded that there were no significant differences in the amount of time the mice spent on their rodent treadmills compared to their fellow mice in captivity. They also speculated that the animals enjoyed the running, although they neglected to have the mice fill out questionnaires, so we can’t be sure. One thing we can pretty sure of: wheel running is “elective behavior,” and not merely an artifact of being caged.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the follow-up study on humans, in which a working human treadmill is left out in a park to see if people will hop on board.