Humane Education: Do They Have a Choice?

People are often surprised to hear that the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) does not include animals in any of our education programs – either on grounds or at community or school events. This is because programs like this – no matter how well orchestrated – can be stressful for exotic animals and can negatively impact their well-being. As a leader in animal welfare and the home of the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics, the well-being of the animals is at the core of every decision we make.

Consider what it might be like for an animal to take part in a program with many excited children and adults nearby. Animals that are forced to be in programs often have to be physically restrained or manipulated and aren’t given a choice to opt out. The ability of an animal to make choices and to have an impact on his or her own life are fundamentally important to good welfare. As soon as the animal is handled, whether it is to put on a harness or to otherwise physically restrain him or her, any choice to participate is removed and the animal can either comply or resist, neither of which are positive choices. Additionally, regular handling of animals can actually result in a condition called learned helplessness. As the animals learn that they cannot avoid being restrained, carried around and touched, they simply stop reacting. This isn’t a sign of them being comfortable, but instead, that they have given up.

Animals used in such programs are often housed in smaller, less complex spaces and may have to be transported between venues for programs. These activities certainly impact the welfare of the individuals in a negative way. Additionally, the normal activity patterns of the animals are often disrupted, as performances are not scheduled based on their circadian rhythms (the natural daily cycles we experience that affect our physiology and behavior), and for some, such as nocturnal animals, these disruptions can have an even more drastic effect.

There are many ways in which humans and animals can interact, sometimes without any contact and sometimes more directly. Several of the animal habitats at the Detroit Zoo have been designed in such a way that visitors can be immersed in the experience without actually coming into contact with animals – this includes the Australian Outback Adventure, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the Polar Passage in the Arctic Ring of Life, the Butterfly Garden and the prairie dog habitat. We also offer two types of experiences that allow guests to directly interact with individual animals: the Giraffe Encounter and Mingle with the Macaronis.

Visitors at the Detroit Zoo have the opportunity to interact with animals in certain circumstances where each animal may choose whether to participate or not.

A very important distinction between these experiences and performance-type programs is that, at the Detroit Zoo, each animal has the choice to participate or not. This means that the animals have the opportunity to choose if they want to interact – and there are no negative consequences if they decline to participate – and they can control the amount of interaction and length of the encounter, with the option to leave at any time. Choice and control are critical to good welfare, in humans and non-humans alike.

Holding and presenting exotic animals like this also sends the message that we can do as we wish with these animals for our entertainment. This is a message we do not want to send. Promoting reverence and respect for all animals is important – for human and nonhuman species alike – and is an essential component of our mission. In addition, handling exotic animals and allowing others to interact with them may lead people to want one of their own. The experience could mislead people into thinking that exotic animals make good pets or companions.

The next time you see an animal being forced to perform or interact with people, ask yourself:

  • What does a day in the life of this animal look like?
  • What happens to the animal when he/she isn’t being shown?
  • Where did this animal come from originally?
  • How does he/she live? What does he/she do?
  • What is the lifetime care plan for this animal?
  • What is his/her ability to choose? Is the animal participating because he/she wants to?
  • What does the world look like from the animal’s perspective? Try to imagine the experience through their eyes, ears and nose.

Choosing not to participate in events or programs that force exotic animals to perform and interact with humans sends a powerful message. The DZS’s foundation of animal welfare and humane education ensures that we provide unique learning experiences without compromising the well-being of animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics. Lisa Forzley is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Animal Welfare: Sleep is Good for You – and for Animals Too!

Staff from the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics have been observing the barn owl living at the Detroit Zoo to study his sleep patterns. Jim’s home in the Barn is a popular spot for visitors – Thoroughbred horses, donkeys, steer and pigs also live there. And while barn owls are nocturnal, spending the majority of the daylight hours sleeping, the noises and activity in the Barn may cause mild disturbances during the owl’s normal sleep cycle. Jim has lived at the Detroit Zoo for many years and appears to be healthy and happy, but it is important that we look at other measures of welfare.

Sleep patterns and sleep quality have been proposed as animal welfare monitoring tools, as links between well-being and sleep have been documented in humans. If you have gone through stressful times in your life, you may have experienced poor quality sleep, perhaps waking up more often. Similar effects have been found in other animals, such as rats and chimpanzees. However, poor sleep itself can also have an impact on welfare. Rats whose sleep cycles were disturbed by routine caretaking activities were found to groom themselves less and engage in fewer enrichment-related behaviors.

Sleep research typically makes use of electroencephalograms (EEGs) – which use small sensors attached to the head to measure brain activity – as well as other types of devices, which, as you can imagine, could be disruptive and rather challenging to use with animals living in zoos. We are therefore using behavioral and endocrine measures as non-invasive means to assess the welfare of the barn owl in relation to environmental factors such as noise.

We made observations of the barn owl’s behavior multiple times each day, primarily focusing on body and head position and degree of eye closure. We also recorded noise levels and other environmental factors. Fecal samples are being analyzed in our endocrinology lab by Dr. Grace Fuller, manager of applied animal welfare science and Jennifer Hamilton, applied animal welfare programs coordinator, to look for any changes in hormone levels. The samples were collected on a daily basis by animal care staff and prepared for analysis by our dedicated volunteers, whose help is invaluable!

The barn owl’s behavior could indicate how well he is sleeping and if any external factors are contributing to his sleep patterns. The hormone analysis – along with data on his food consumption – will be a way for us to validate the behavioral information we gathered. If we understand how to measure sleep quality non-invasively, we can apply this methodology to other species and expand our toolkit to monitor animal welfare.

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

Animal Welfare: If You Build it, They Will Explore

Juvenile Madagascar giant hognose snakes recently moved into new homes in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center and indicators measured showed this had positive welfare impacts.

Although Madagascar giant hognose snakes can grow to 6 feet in length, the individuals that live at the Detroit Zoo are still rather small, and have been living behind the scenes since they hatched two years ago. They have a distinctive upturned snout, which they use to burrow and search through leaf litter and other ground substrates in search of food and shelter. Several months ago, the reptile department created new, more naturalistic habitats for the snakes, providing them with additional opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

These larger spaces were outfitted with multiple types of shelter and natural substrates such as sand, mulch and cork bark. Complex spaces with ample options for making choices can contribute to positive welfare and one of our recent residents at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics, Marisa Spain, decided to conduct a study examining the impact that these new habitats had on the snakes. Little attention has been given to the welfare of reptiles, and as such, less information is available about conditions in which they thrive than for mammals and birds. Marisa studied the snakes before and after they moved into the new spaces, spending hours recording their movements. In their new habitats, the Madagascar giant hognose snakes significantly increased their rates of tongue flicking, which is indicative of exploratory behavior. Similar increases have been seen in other reptile species and categorized as positive indicators of welfare. The snakes also increased how much time they spent burrowing, which is a species-typical behavior now better supported by their enhanced environment. The snakes exhibited more active behaviors in general, something we were hoping to see, as activity levels can indicate how engaged an animal is with its environment. The snakes also showed an increase in behavioral diversity, which is also being used as an indicator of positive welfare.

Overall, we were thrilled to see that the move to their new homes was a valuable change for the snakes. Reptiles perform activities for the same reasons other animals do; for example, to seek food, to explore and to find comfortable places to rest. Because of these welfare studies, we have a better understanding of how reptiles living in the care of humans are faring. All individual animals have welfare needs and while it is our responsibility to ensure those needs are met, it is also incredibly rewarding to see the animals thrive.

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

Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

You may have noticed some changes at the Detroit Zoo recently, with construction occurring at many animal habitats. We recently unveiled the expansion of the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which tripled the outdoor space available to the North American river otters, complete with a flowing stream and a sandy beach. We’ve also been working on improving the giraffe habitat by adding much needed additional outdoor space and doubling the size of the indoor area. This past spring, Homer the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moved to newly remodeled digs near the rhinos, and we’re currently renovating his former home in the National Amphibian Conservation Center to provide a more spacious habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders.

Sometimes, as was the case with the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, we have the ability to design and build new habitats from the ground up. In other instances, we are able to take habitats that already contain many features that benefit the animals and expand upon them to provide even more space and complexity. In both situations, we begin with the knowledge we have about individual animals and how they interact with their environments.

For example, we know that otters are semi-aquatic. Staff at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare have observed the animals engaged in a variety of water-related behaviors. When it came time to design the expansion of their habitat, it was very important that we incorporate features that would enable them to enjoy the water even more. It’s easy to see how much time they spend in the new stream, now making the most of both deep and shallow areas of water. And the island portion of the habitat enhances their opportunities to interact with various substrates and amplifies the overall complexity of their space.

As we move forward, we will continue to improve the habitats we provide for the animals that call the Detroit Zoo home, ensuring that they are stimulating and naturalistic. We are always a work in progress, keeping the welfare of the animals as our top priority. Up next are the tigers and several species of reptiles in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. As we continue to learn about and understand the needs of the animals in our care – both the individuals and the species – we can make better choices that result in great spaces for them to live in.

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

Uncovering Turtle Personalities

Several years ago, we developed a project through the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to determine if we could identify specific personality traits in Blanding’s turtles. That’s right – turtles! Personality has been linked to survivorship in a number of species, and as the DZS is actively involved in conservation efforts with the Blanding’s turtle – a species of special concern in the state of Michigan – we wanted to learn more. Two personality traits emerged from our research: aggressiveness and exploration, with individuals ranging from low to high in either category. We also discovered that a connection exists between these traits and how Blanding’s turtles fare in the wild.

Researchers have been monitoring the population of Blanding’s turtles in Michigan for several years and making efforts to ensure their numbers don’t drop any further. Female Blanding’s turtles typically lay eggs this time of year, and they often travel rather long distances to find suitable nesting grounds. This certainly puts them at risk, especially as road mortality is one of the major threats they face. When baby turtles hatch, they must find their way back to water, which leaves them vulnerable to predation. The DZS became involved in a head-starting program for this species in 2011. This means that eggs are incubated at the Detroit Zoo and the hatchlings are allowed to grow up safely until they reach a certain size, at which point they are released back into the wild.

We used a series of behavioral tests to uncover specific personality traits, including what is often referred to as the mirror test. A mirror is placed in the testing space and the turtle can choose to approach it and to interact with it. As amazing as turtles are, they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror and hence perceive their reflection to be another turtle. By examining their reaction, we definitely saw each turtle as an individual. Some were reluctant to approach, some were uninterested, some were trying to interact gently, and some were very adamant that there was only room for one turtle in the pond!

Once we identified the personality traits, we wanted to understand what links there may be between personality and the turtles’ behavior and survival once released into their natural habitat. Field researchers from the University of Michigan-Flint tracked the turtles post-release for two years and shared their data with us.

Based on our analyses, turtles that demonstrated high exploration had better survival rates than those who scored low in exploration. During the first year, turtles that were more aggressive traveled further from their release site, but over the entire course of the tracking period, turtles that were more exploratory traveled the most. Turtles that were rated as more aggressive and exploratory were found basking more often. Turtles will rest in the sun to help thermoregulate. This helps them to be more energetically efficient, but being exposed may put them at higher risk of predation. The different personalities therefore behave in different ways that amount to a trade-off in risks and benefits.

Finally, all turtles, regardless of personality, showed a distinct preference for areas vegetated with cattails. Given this demonstrated preference, we now know that this type of habitat might really benefit turtles in future releases.

– Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Congress Draws Global Animal Welfare Leaders to Detroit Zoo

The 4th international animal welfare congress was held May 4-6, 2017, by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW), drawing leaders in the field from all over the world. Convening leaders in animal welfare is one of the Center’s primary initiatives and this was the first time we co-hosted with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a global organization for leading zoos and aquariums, asked to join in our effort to move forward the welfare of animals living in the care humans. We were thrilled to combine our collective power to make a difference.

The congress brought together 140 of the world’s experts in animal welfare representing accredited zoos and aquariums, regional accrediting associations, academia and animal welfare protection organizations to discuss issues of ethics and the future of zoos and aquariums. We are committed to advancing animal welfare and although progress has been made –  both in the science and policy arenas – we must continue to face existing challenges head-on if we are to succeed. The thought-provoking conversations of this esteemed group will help to pave a path forward for zoos and aquariums around the globe.

Organizations entrusted with the care of individual animals have a unique and profound responsibility to go beyond providing good care to ensure that each individual is experiencing great welfare. Accredited zoos and aquariums are striving to raise standards of animal welfare and to ensure animals in their care are thriving. The future of zoos and aquariums depends on our ability to move forward as welfare centers, both within and beyond our walls, championing a compassionate conservation approach.

As the human footprint continues to expand and animals – both individuals and at the population level – are increasingly threatened, accredited zoos and aquariums can play a critical role in the protection and preservation of the beings with whom we share the world. The very foundation of such endeavors is a global commitment to the welfare of all animals living in the care of humans. We look forward to sharing some of the presentations from the congress on the CZAW website, and to a future in which all animals have the opportunity to thrive.

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

Animal Welfare: Ensuring the Well-Being of Senior Animals

It’s a fact of life: With every day that passes, humans and animals get older. And just like humans, as animals go through life, maturing from infants to older adults, their needs change.

Animals living in accredited zoos and aquariums have constant access to resources such as food and veterinary care. They also don’t face predatory pressures as they would in the wild and as a result, they can live very long lives – far longer than they would in the wild. As zoos continue to evolve, so has our understanding of what it means to care for aging animals. Careful monitoring of their health and any physical limitations that may challenge them as they grow older allows us to make adjustments as necessary.

Older animals may not be able to move around as easily as they once did. We may therefore need to modify their physical surroundings to ensure their ability to use their space fully. Advances in veterinary science mean that we can treat any concerns that arise – and in some cases, act proactively to prevent them. Just as some of us may be providing supplements to older cats and dogs sharing our homes, similar measures are also available to treat age-related ailments of animals living in zoos. For example, animals can develop cataracts; several of the crested penguins living at the Detroit Zoo have undergone surgery to address their visual impairments. This has allowed them to better navigate through their wonderful new home at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and to more fully interact with the other penguins.

Zoos have a profound responsibility to all of the animals in their care, including a commitment to ensuring great lifelong welfare. The staff at the Detroit Zoo care for and about each individual animal, through every stage in their lives. As we celebrate Senior Day on April 26, we honor both our human and animal friends in their golden years. For the animals at the Detroit Zoo, this includes Kintla, a 33-year-old grizzly bear; Bubbles, a 46-year-old chimpanzee; Knick-Knack and Giovanni, 23-year-old miniature donkeys; Homer, a 25-year-old Hoffman’s two-toed sloth; and Lily, a 26-year-old Przewalski’s horse.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.