Animal Welfare: The Sensory World of Wildlife

What sounds do you hear when you wake up? I sometimes hear my dog gently urging me to get out of bed. Sometimes I hear a car alarm, which is less pleasant. What do feel when you wake up? For me, it’s my toasty warm sheets and if I’m lucky, I can reach my hand out and pet my dog on the head. What do you smell? What do you see? What about during the day, or at the end of the day? We experience sensations all the time, even when we aren’t awake to realize it. What do those sensations mean to you and how do they affect how you behave?

Animals experience all of the things we do, but not necessarily in the same way. For example, depending on how their sensory systems function, they may smell things much more strongly than we do. A dog’s sense of smell is approximately 40 times stronger than ours. This means what odors we notice may be negligible compared to what they do. While humans typically rely on their eyesight as their primary sense, many animals see differently than we do. Birds and reptiles can see in the ultraviolet range. Raptors can see much further than we can, and some animals see more of what’s around them due to the placement of their eyes. Some animals, such as pit vipers, sense things using infrared sensors, which allows them to find their prey using heat signals. All of this means that animals experience the world very differently than we do, and this can impact their welfare. The senses of animals are essential for every aspect of their daily lives, from finding food and shelter to recognizing others as friend or foe.

If we are concerned about the well-being of animals, we must be aware of how they experience the world around them. We must also be considerate of how our actions can affect their perception. Animals living in their natural habitat are becoming more vulnerable to our actions, from birds colliding with buildings that are lit up at night, to frogs who have to compete with man-made noises to hear one another.

When it comes to animals living in the care of humans, this can also prove to be a challenge. We don’t know enough about how other species perceive their world, but we use the knowledge we do have to make the best possible decisions. For animals living in zoos and aquariums, we have a lot to consider. Ultimately, we are the architects of the homes for other species. Imagine if a zebra was in charge of designing your home. What if a snake built your office? The field of sensory ecology, which is the study of how organisms acquire, process, and respond to information from their environment, continues to grow. We use that information to help create habitats at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center that provide animals with positive experiences. Additionally, we take the sensory perception of animals into consideration when we plan special events and construction projects, as sounds, sights and smells may impact individual animals. We also think about what animals live near each other. Can an animal feel threatened or positively stimulated by the sight, sound or smell of another species?

In our own lives, we are aware of which sensations make our experiences positive and which don’t. We are often in control of those experiences, or we know they are temporary. Animals may not have those opportunities, and it is our responsibility to ensure we are creating positive experiences and minimizing our own contributions to impacts on welfare resulting from sensory inputs. Take a moment to think about the experiences of the animals who share your home with you. Is there room for improvement? If so, come up with ways to mitigate any negative sensory impacts. Also, take time to think about how the animals as the Zoo feel if people yell at them or create conditions that alters their ability to use their senses.

Those of us who care for animals for a living have to be extremely sensitive to the ways animals perceive their environment. This important concept is part of what the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics teaches each year during our workshops. We immerse the participants in animal habitats in various ways in order to change our own human perspective. The understanding each person gains from these experiences is an invaluable part of their toolkit to further the welfare of every animal with whom they work and live.

– 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.

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