Animal Welfare: What’s Heat Got to Do With it?

Have you ever been so worked up about something that it “made your blood boil” or told someone they should “chill out”?  We often equate emotions with temperature and the English language has a number of idioms that reflect this association. As it turns out, there is a real and biologically based reason for this.  As we experience some emotions, our bodies undergo a number of processes, including changes in our temperature. This is the case for other species as well, and research has shown that particular emotions can be assessed using temperature fluctuations.

Finding new ways to evaluate the emotional lives of animals is a critical part of advancing our understanding of animal welfare. It is also incredibly important that we develop methods that are non-invasive, thereby not affecting the animals as we assess their well-being. Infrared thermography is a potential way for us to do just this, and staff at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) is working on new ways to apply it at the Detroit Zoo. Infrared thermography (IRT) is a type of technology that allows us to remotely measure the temperature of an object using a camera. The images, called thermograms, show different colors to represent temperatures and this allows us to take measurements without having to touch the object.

In recent years, the impact of interactions and relationships with humans on the welfare of animals has begun to receive more attention. As animals living in zoos invariably encounter and interact with humans on a variety of levels, it is crucial that we understand how these relationships affect animal welfare. In some cases, it may be easy to assess how an animal is reacting, but in others, we have to use means that are more scientific. CZAAWE has developed a number of projects to examine human-animal relationships using several methods, including IRT.

There are several types of experiences during which visitors can interact with an animal at the Detroit Zoo. These encounters are entirely voluntary, as the animals (and the visitors) can choose whether they want to participate. The Giraffe Encounter is a lot of fun for guests, and, we presume, for the giraffes as well, but we cannot be sure. Led by Dr. Matt Heintz, animal welfare research associate for the Detroit Zoological Society, we utilized behavior, IRT and hormone data to learn more about the giraffe’s side of the experience. During this public feeding opportunity, the giraffes receive browse (natural vegetation) from the animal care staff and from Zoo visitors. Based on the data, the feeds are indeed a positive experience, but do not appear to be socially motivated. The amount of engagement we saw in the behavioral data, along with a lack of change in cortisol levels – which can tell us if an animal is experiencing stress – and increases in body temperature reflective of stimulation, all point to an enjoyable event for the giraffes. We also measured levels of oxytocin – a biological marker that increases during positive social experiences – and saw no such increases. This leads us to believe that for the giraffes, the feeds are an enjoyable way to score some extra greens, but not because they get to interact with us.

It is important that we ask questions about the perception animals have of their world and any impact we may be having on their welfare. Science is contributing to improvements in animal welfare and one of CZAAWE’s goals is to expand that knowledge and share it to help ensure the well-being of animals living in the care of humans.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Greenprint: Reducing Harmful Litter One Drink at a Time

Twisty straws, crazy straws, straws with little umbrellas on them – these may seem fun and convenient but the environmental impact of plastic straws far outweighs the benefits of sipping drinks without having to lift them. In fact, the statistics behind straw usage and plastic pollution can be difficult to digest.  According to the National Park Service, Americans alone use 500 million straws every day. Plastic straws are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, which begs the question: Where do all these straws go?

As a part of the 91 percent of plastic waste that does not get recycled, these straws either sit in landfills or become litter that contaminates the environment. This is of special concern for an institution providing care to animals because this piece of litter can be extremely dangerous. Straws can be blown by the wind into animal habitats and ingested by the inhabitants, causing significant harm.

For many, this issue was brought to life in 2015 when a video of a scientists removing part of a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril went viral. The eight-minute video is quite painful to watch, which is why it garnered so much attention and sympathy. The video sparked several movements to reduce straw (and plastic in general) usage, but many efforts were in place long before the internet brought it to mainstream attention.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) stopped providing straws and plastic lids at Detroit Zoo concessions more than 10 years ago, not only preventing some 242,000 pieces of waste from potentially entering animal habitats annually, but also keeping these out of the waste stream. Because for us, this goes beyond animal welfare – it’s about sustainability too. By cutting down on plastic usage, we contribute less to landfills and pollution while preserving oil, a depleting resource. Eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year and at this rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills. We’ve kept more than 2 million straws out of landfills in the last decade by removing them from our concessions.

Other straw-banning movements have sprung up worldwide, including London’s Straw Wars, Straws Suck, and The Last Plastic Straw Movement, asking people to reject using straws and encourage restaurants to do the same.

Animals are not the only ones who suffer.  Toxic chemicals from plastic waste seep into groundwater and flow into lakes and streams contaminating the water that is eventually consumed by humans and animals. Every piece of plastic waste comes with a negative consequence. When one part of the ecosystem is disrupted, all life suffers.

As an organization dedicated to creating a more sustainable future, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken many steps that yield a big impact on saving the environment. In 2017, the DZS received the Keep Michigan Beautiful award for our environmental contributions. We are keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions. Reusable bottles are available for guests at an affordable price. We are further reducing our plastic waste by no longer providing plastic bags at our gift shops. Instead, guests can purchase reusable animal-themed bags.

When we walk on this Green Journey together, it can make a big difference for the animals and the Earth. So, without a straw, let’s raise a glass to those dedicated to the cause. No litter goes unnoticed and neither do your efforts for a more sustainable planet.

Stay tuned to the Detroit Zoological Society Blog to learn more about our award-winning Greenprint initiatives and what you can do to help.