The promotion of good welfare for zoo animals is a priority which BIAZA takes very seriously. Zoos and aquariums meet the needs of the animals in their care by understanding what constitutes good welfare, and by providing appropriate housing and husbandry.
It is tempting to assess the welfare requirements for animals by making direct comparisons with humans. We must, however, be careful. A smiling chimpanzee is afraid, not happy; very few animals use their faces to communicate in the way we do. Cheetahs in the wild will pace the boundaries of their territories, as they might pace the boundaries of their zoo enclosures; for other species pacing might not be normal and could indicate a problem. Animal welfare assessment can be accomplished by considering several components:
We can monitor the physical health of an animal by looking out for symptoms of illness or injury; a sick animal may appear unusually tired or may stop eating, an injured leg may not be walked on. Advances in veterinary science enable quick diagnosis and the provision of appropriate medication. Preventative medicine is also integral to maintaining physical health; prevention is better than cure.
Good physical health is also dependant on the food provided. Good food can prevent disease, by boosting the immune system (the animals’ natural defence against disease) and by preventing nutritional deficiencies.
How can we monitor what is going on in an animal’s mind? How can we tell when an animal is uncomfortable in its environment? How can we tell when it is frustrated or under stress?
Research has demonstrated that an animals’ behaviour can indicate its underlying psychological state. As the situation can be complex, a professional with experience and knowledge of a particular type of animal is needed to assess what is and what is not normal behaviour. Other indices also reflect mental well being, for example in times of stress we know that a hormone called cortisol is secreted. Technological advances mean that we can now measure an animals’ cortisol level from its urine or faeces!
Social life – or not
One of the most important factors for any animal is the company it keeps. Zoos and aquariums should keep animals in social groups that are similar to those in the wild, however, these may vary. Group size in the wild is often determined by food; if there is a lot of food group sizes are large, if food is scarce group sizes will be small. Food is not limited in zoos, so what other factor might be important in determining the social group?
The breeding patterns of wild animals are varied but fundamental to one of the key objectives for zoos and aquariums, to maintain long-term viable populations of endangered animals through captive breeding. To achieve successful matings and reach this goal, zoos frequently mimic the breeding patterns of wild animals; this is also considered to be beneficial for welfare. Some animals live alone pairing briefly for breeding, while others pair for life. Social animals can live in large groups with many males and females, spending little or all of their time together. Single sex groups also exist.
Many Zoo visitors sometimes remark on the space available to captive animals. It is undeniable that animals require a certain amount of space to satisfy their needs. But, many studies have demonstrated that animals’ prefer their enclosures to include complexity, variety, challenge and options, rather than just space. Where would you prefer to live: an empty warehouse (i.e. lots of space but nothing else), or a fully furnished small house with a telephone, television, CD-player, books, a computer, and the regular arrival of new things? Most of us would agree that (empty) space is not very interesting, its what’s in the space that matters.
Environmental enrichment aims to mentally and physically stimulate captive animals, primarily through changes made to the animals’ environment; though it can take a variety of forms. Enrichment techniques can involve the use of scent, noise, novelty and objects which require manipulation. An example is hiding food within an enclosure. This might appear odd, but it stimulates the animals’ natural foraging behaviour; replicating how a wild animal would spend long periods actively searching for food. A lot of enrichment involves food. Research has shown that many animals prefer to ‘work’ for their food; this means that even when a dish of food is provided, they choose to gather their food from puzzle feeders or devices, which require some manual or mental dexterity.