The Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) undertakes studies to find innovative and non-invasive means to evaluate how animals are faring. There are a variety of ways to do this, including looking at hormone levels, as they can reflect the internal state of an animal. Hormones control most major bodily functions, including complex systems such as emotional response. We are able to study the hormones of animals at the Detroit Zoo in our endocrinology lab; Dr. Grace Fuller, the Detroit Zoological Society’s manager of applied animal welfare science, is responsible for the work that is done here.
Oxytocin is a hormone that has the potential to tell us a lot about how animals are responding to their social environment. While commonly referenced for its role in a mother bonding with an offspring, oxytocin is involved in bonding in many social settings. It has been studied in a variety of species, including humans. One of the great things about this type of biological marker is that we can measure it in materials such as saliva and urine. This means we can obtain samples more easily, without impacting the animals in a potentially negative way, as might be the case if we had to restrain an animal to obtain a blood sample.
We have collected saliva and urine samples from the giraffes living at the Zoo to explore how social interactions might be having an effect on them. Dr. Fuller has validated (a process necessary to prove that we are indeed measuring what we think we are) our ability to detect levels of oxytocin in both types of samples, and is now looking at how levels correlate with different social situations, including changes to group composition and visitor interactions.
We look forward to sharing the results of this important work as we move forward.
– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.