By Bailey Brocco
What do gorilla hormones, water monitor tongue flicking, penguin swimming duration and aardvark habitat use all have in common? They are all studied by staff at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) as indicators of animal welfare! Animal welfare refers to the mental, physical and emotional state of an animal throughout their lifetime. Animals can’t talk to tell us how they’re feeling, but that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. Just like humans, animals behave differently under different circumstances. There are many non-verbal indicators that animals may use to communicate their needs and well-being. Their posture, eating habits, social interactions, space use, hormone levels and much more can all serve as clues to tell us how they are doing. CZAAWE staff are dedicated to assessing and improving the welfare of all the animals at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. My name is Bailey, and I am a senior at Oakland University majoring in biology. This fall, I was fortunate to join CZAAWE as an intern and dive into what it really means to study animal welfare.
At any given time, CZAAWE is conducting research across a number of species. Each project requires its own special training, as different taxa have their own species-specific behaviors used to evaluate their wellbeing. As an intern for CZAAWE, I contributed to multiple ongoing welfare projects. I worked on projects involving aardvarks, gorillas, polar bears, a water monitor, San Esteban Island chuckwallas, penguins and red kangaroos. Each group of animals had their own ethogram, a reference describing their behaviors, which made each study a unique experience. I might record several different behaviors in the span of a minute when observing the aardvarks, but only one behavior within ten minutes for the chuckwallas. Each project varied not just in terms of the behaviors we monitored, but the questions we asked. For the kangaroos, we focused on their interactions with novel enrichment in different areas of the habitat, while we investigated the degree of visibility in the resident chuckwallas.
Even though a study might include an entire group of animals, animal welfare is measured at the individual level. The Detroit Zoological Society’s campuses are home to thousands of animal residents, which means taking each of their individual needs, personalities and behaviors into account. The aardvarks are a great example. Aardvarks are nocturnal animals, so it is difficult to observe them during the day. Instead, we study their behavior using camera footage collected during the night when they are active. I really enjoyed my time watching them because of how different each one is. Baji, the only male in the group, is very social and inquisitive. Roxaane is the oldest female and more laid back. She enjoys sleeping, but she’s also very food driven. What is usual and expected for one individual might be uncommon for another. While observing animal behavior is very important (and fun), it is only one of many ways to assess animal welfare.
Another important indicator of welfare is hormones. Hormones offer some insight into the physiological state of an individual. There are many ways to measure hormones, but one of the least invasive ways is through the collection of fecal samples. Part of my time here has been spent crushing gorilla and polar bear fecal samples and learning how to extract hormones from them in CZAAWE’s Endocrinology Lab. This state-of-the-art lab is completely dedicated to gathering and processing data on hormones and other biomarkers that offer insight into animal well-being. Although it may not sound very glamorous, being able to analyze fecal samples in a lab is a privilege that not many other zoos have. Using both behavioral and hormonal indicators allows us to paint a more comprehensive picture of animal welfare.
Zoo staff don’t just collect data, they have to process it too. The raw data that is gathered needs to be cleaned and analyzed so it can be used to inform new and beneficial management strategies. In the beginning, cleaning data and organizing it on the computer seemed very daunting to me. However, with some training and practice, I have come to really appreciate this skill. Collecting data is important, but it’s useless if it can’t be analyzed, interpreted and shared. CZAAWE needs to clearly communicate its findings to the many different departments at the Zoo. The ability to concisely organize the data into summaries is just as essential as the rest of work this department performs. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to practice honing these skills.
With new breakthroughs in technology and research, the field of welfare is always growing and evolving. It’s incredibly important to continue to stay up to date on new findings and add to the body of knowledge when we can. CZAAWE has published many of its own studies and findings to contribute to the current knowledge available. Additionally, CZAAWE keeps an online Resource Center, which you can access on their website, full of the most up-to-date research relating to the wellbeing of animals. I spent quite a bit of time searching for new research to add to that database. It was incredible to see the different research people are conducting all over the world in the attempt to learn more about the wonderful animals in our care.
Every animal is precious, and it is our job to ensure that each and every one of them is not just surviving, but thriving. There is always a lot of work to be done when it comes to ensuring the wellbeing of animals, but welfare scientists work hard to promote the best lives possible for animals. I’m so grateful for the amazing opportunity I was given in interning here at the Detroit Zoo. It has been really eye-opening to see, and participate in, every step of studying welfare. I have a much better understanding of how the process works from conception, to collection and finally to distribution. I have learned so much in the time I’ve spent already, and I’m excited for all the adventures yet to come!