Great Well-Being Starts on Day One

By Jennifer Hamilton, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) Animal Welfare Programs Manager

When an animal moves to a new zoo, many factors can affect their well-being. Just like when humans move to a new home, there is a little more stress than normal as they adapt to new schedules, new neighbors and their new location. There is also a risk that animals may catch or pass on a contagious disease to resident animals at their new home. Knowing this, the current standard practice is to quarantine animals before or after transport. Some species have specific quarantine requirements, but for many animals, 30 days with veterinary monitoring and care is enough to prevent the transfer of contagious diseases.

In addition to the animal health benefits of quarantine, there are a few other advantages to this time. Animals are usually housed in a quieter location away from other animals, allowing them to slowly adapt to new care staff and schedules without nosey or loud neighbors interrupting. This also allows time for care staff to learn about each individual and start building positive relationships with them. The care team can learn their likes and dislikes and, in some cases, begin the process of transferring previous positive reinforcement training from other facilities to a new primary trainer. 

Amur tiger Ameliya moved to the Detroit Zoo in 2020.

However, we know it’s important not to make assumptions about an animal’s overall well-being. Instead, we monitor an animal’s well-being during this quarantine time to ensure that they are showing positive signs that they are adjusting to their new home. This monitoring can take different forms to meet the needs of each individual and each animal care department. For instance, an animal living in a similar quarantine space and social grouping as their previous housing at another zoo may not need intensive monitoring. In these cases, we carefully review notes and observations by animal care staff to monitor their well-being. However, for other animals, moving to the Detroit Zoo or Belle Isle Nature Center may come with larger changes, whether in social companions or their physical space. For these animals, we perform more active monitoring.

The DZS has two levels of active quarantine monitoring. Both options are designed for each individual through collaborations between animal welfare and animal care staff. The first option we have is a daily datasheet. This datasheet includes welfare indicators that are important for the species being monitored. So, for social species, there are questions about positive and negative social interactions and time spent in proximity to their social companions. For species that naturally spend a lot of time in the water, there is a category asking how much time they spent in the pool.

Ameliya is comfortable in her new home and explores the different parts of her habitat.

One example of an animal with a daily datasheet was Ameliya, an Amur tiger who moved to the Detroit Zoo in December 2020. We knew from Ameliya’s previous facility that she was a typical cat and not a fan of when things changed in her life. Working with animal care staff, we designed her daily datasheet to assess how she reacted to new keepers, new training and new enrichment. Animal care staff frequently visited and cared for her throughout the day, and once a day, they completed a datasheet for her based on their observations. Through collecting this data, we were able to see when Ameliya became comfortable with her new home and care staff. 

Our second active monitoring option is to conduct standardized observations of the behavior of animals in quarantine. One of the drawbacks of this method is that quarantine spaces often do not provide many locations to observe without impacting the behavior of the animals. It’s difficult to get a good understanding of how an animal is feeling if they are watching you while you are watching them! Often, we get around this by watching animals through cameras set up in their quarantine space. Just like on the daily datasheets, the behaviors included in the observations are based on those that are important for the individual. 

Red ruffed lemur brothers Iray and Telo moved to the Detroit Zoo in 2023.

The red ruffed lemurs, Telo and Iray, had standardized video observations while they were in quarantine. Their observation protocol included behaviors such as investigation and positive and negative social behaviors, as we felt these were important behaviors for their well-being. We also tracked how they were using their space, as we wanted to make sure they were comfortable in their quarantine space. We found that the lemurs preferred to be up high on their climbing structures, which is consistent with the behavior of wild red ruffed lemurs, who prefer being in trees. In addition, they used all the climbing structures provided, suggesting they were comfortable exploring their quarantine space.

Quarantine is an important step to make sure incoming animals and current Zoo residents remain healthy. The overall well-being of animals as they are going through this quarantine process is just as important. Monitoring allows us to gather the information we need to make sure all animals have the best well-being possible from the moment they arrive.

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