Animal Welfare: In the Dark – Aardvark Well-Being

If you share your home with an animal companion, have you ever wondered what he or she does when you are not home? Some people install cameras that allow them to use their phones to take a peek at what their dog is up to, or where the cat is spending her time. We also wonder about what animals do at the Detroit Zoo when we are not here, and this is especially true for nocturnal animals who are most active when we are sleeping. Aardvarks are one of those species, and the Detroit Zoological Society has been using cameras to study their behavior.

Aardvarks are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not only are they primarily nocturnal, but they are also fossorial, meaning they dig and burrow underground. This makes them even more challenging to observe, as you can imagine! The four aardvarks who live at the Detroit Zoo are cared for by the night keeper unit, whose hours allow for expanded opportunities for animals, including those who are active later into the night. The staff come up with creative ideas to engage the aardvarks and stimulate natural behaviors.

We installed a number of infrared cameras in the habitat, allowing us to record what the aardvarks do and where they choose to spend their time. Initial research revealed that they had specific preferences, such as sleeping in culverts, which are reminiscent of underground burrows, and that their activity levels varied by individual. Roxaanne, one of the females, preferred to stay up much later than the others, for example. Additionally, we found that when the aardvarks engaged in more investigative behaviors, they had lower fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations. Decreased levels of FGMs have been correlated with lower stress levels and overall positive welfare. By taking behavior and hormones into account, we get a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of the aardvarks under different conditions.

Jennifer Hamilton, DZS animal welfare programs coordinator, worked with the animal care staff to develop a new project aimed to increase behavioral opportunities for the aardvarks, by specifically targeting more foraging and investigative behaviors. Jennifer and a small team of dedicated volunteers watched more than 220 hours of “aardvark television”. Talk about binge-watching reality TV! In addition to the behavioral data, the care staff once again collected daily fecal samples on each aardvark so that we could analyze them for FGMs.

Higher levels of investigative behaviors were again linked to lower levels of FGMs. This suggests that these types of behaviors are important for aardvarks and need to be encouraged. The behavior data also showed that foraging opportunities were used for longer periods of time when initially presented, but that investigative opportunities were used more as the night went on. As part of the project, the aardvarks were presented with seven opportunities once a week for eight weeks. We were able to confirm that the aardvarks did not lose interest over time, meaning that repeated interactions don’t bore them! Finally, the aardvarks’ use of the opportunities differed based on their location. The aardvarks have access to different spaces, which vary in their substrates and features. One of the spaces has a very large and deep dirt area, and the aardvarks spent less time engaged in the extra opportunities provided when in that habitat. This may be indicative of a flexible value system, with less value placed on additional opportunities when overall conditions may already be more stimulating. This is an important concept as we explore what type of choices are meaningful to animals and how to create environments that enable them to thrive.

– 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.

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.

Animal Welfare: Seal of Approval

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is investigating the effect of foraging opportunities on the welfare of the seals who live at the Detroit Zoo. Foraging is a very important behavior category for animals, as it typically involves mentally and physically stimulating behaviors. Wild gray seals may spend up to two-thirds of their time searching for food. Although they do have well-developed hearing and sight, seals often rely on their extremely sensitive whiskers to locate the fish they eat. This is necessary as visual conditions underwater can be poor and swimming fish may not generate much noise as they move. Instead, the fish – and other prey items – create vibration trails in the water and these are the stimuli the seals’ whiskers detect. Research has shown that harbor seals can use their whiskers to distinguish between objects of different sizes and shapes – a skill they can use to select better prey items when hunting.

Seals living in zoos and aquariums don’t need to forage in quite the same way as they would in the wild, and thus may not engage in as many complex feeding behaviors. As part of her residency with the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics, Sara Zalewski worked with DZS staff to design a project examining the impact of three different ways to increase foraging behavior in the gray and harbor seals living at the Detroit Zoo. The seals were presented with fish frozen in ice, fish placed on top of a floating disk and sunken tubes the seals needed to manipulate to allow fish to fall out of holes in the tube. All three items were used to increase the amount of the work the seals would have to do to get to the food. As part of this research, Sara found that the seals differed by both species and individual in how they used the items.

The gray seals interacted with the items most when they were first presented with them, and the harbor seals’ level of interaction increased as time went on. The likely explanation for this is that the gray seals were younger and more dominant, and thus were able to use the items more easily. Once they had their fill of the food, they would lose interest and the harbor seals could begin to investigate the items. Dealing with dominance hierarchies can create challenges when providing animals with resources, and is therefore something we have to keep in mind when thinking about the welfare of all of the individuals.

Another challenge was getting the seals to use the items for longer periods of time. It makes sense that less interaction occurs without the motivation of obtaining food, so there is a need for more challenging devices that require the seals to use more of their foraging abilities. One unexpected outcome was that Georgie, one of the female gray seals, would sometimes use a floating disk as a resting place later in the day. However, it could not support her body weight, so she would lay on it on top of something else, such as a ledge in the pool. Other studies have shown that gray seals’ preferred prey, haul out sites, and feeding locations and techniques differ greatly between individuals. Finding ways that items can serve more than one purpose and allow each seal to make use of them as they choose are also goals.

Harbor seals are an especially playful species, including as adults. However, as animals age, play and exploratory behavior tend to decrease, regardless of the species. Additionally, decreases in their sensory abilities may occur. This means that for Sydney, the older male harbor seal, opportunities may be more challenging or potentially less engaging for him.

In order to create more engaging ways for all the seals to forage, Sara worked with DZS staff to refine the items and will observe Georgie and Jersey, the two gray seals, and Sydney, the harbor seal, to see how the modifications affect their behavior. DZS staff members are creating floating devices that the seals can use to rest – as well as interact with for access to fish – and are changing the design of the tubes so that they rest standing up, rather than lying flat on the bottom of the pool. This should make it a bit harder for the fish to fall out, and will be more stimulating for the seals as a result. Finally, Sydney will have some alone time with the items, to ensure the younger and more agile females don’t deplete the food before he has a chance to interact with the foraging devices. During your next visit, you may see these items in the seal pool at Arctic Ring of Life. Although we are only observing the seals at specific times, incorporating these types of behavioral opportunities is part of our daily comprehensive program of ensuring the environments for all the animals at the Detroit Zoo are ever changing and appropriately complex.

– 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.

Animal Welfare: Inspiring the Next Generation

Do you know what it’s like to be a giant anteater? How about what the world looks and sounds like if you are an 18-foot tall giraffe? High school students taking part in the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) animal welfare summer camps had the unique opportunity to experience just that.

Over two weeks, 31 students participated in activities based on the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics’ “From Good Care to Great Welfare” workshop, which annually draws professional animal care staff from around the world. The goal of these immersive exercises is for the students to better understand the world from the perspective of another species.

What we pay attention to in our everyday lives is based on what is meaningful to us. When we make an effort to put ourselves in the place of another being (or as close to it as we can), we become aware of the factors that may impact them, even things we had never noticed before. The students noted that when they were “anteaters”, they focused more on what they could hear and smell. When they were elevated to the height of Jabari, the male giraffe who lives at the Detroit Zoo, they could see the neighboring golf course. They wondered if that is an interesting thing for the giraffes to see. Not all humans like golf, but what do giraffes think of the view? Different species – and different individuals within a species – have different preferences, and we have to pay attention to that to ensure they experience great welfare.

In addition to the immersive exercises, the students also studied the behavior of the two giant anteaters at the Zoo to better understand how they use their habitat and which environmental features they seemed to prefer. They used all of the knowledge they gained to design a new habitat for the anteaters as their final project. It was really impressive to see everything they incorporated into their models, and the reasons they gave for the choices they made. The students participated in a lot of other activities, including working with a staff member from the Humane Society of Huron Valley on positive reinforcement training with one of the amazing adoptable dogs from the shelter. DZS staff made videos documenting the camps, and it was so great to hear how the students are going to take this information with them and apply it to their own lives, including with the animals that share their homes. We had a great time working with everyone and sharing knowledge to inspire the next generation to be aware of and champions for animal welfare.

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

At First Light: Meeting Sweet Baby Jane

As the lights gradually came on at sunrise behind the scenes at the Detroit Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee on Saturday, July 14, 34-year-old chimpanzee Abby made her way over to the mesh that separates the neighboring stall. She knocked on the door and vocalized to the other chimpanzees, who were slowly starting to wake up. Curious chimps approached the mesh to greet Abby, and as they looked, they could see a tiny newborn chimpanzee in her arms. Abby greeted her friends and showed them her baby while keeping a safe distance to protect her from any inquisitive poking fingers.

The little one was born just after midnight on what was coincidentally the first World Chimpanzee Day. She was named “Jane” after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, in honor of the anniversary of her first visit to what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study the social interactions of wild chimpanzees.

During the first few days, Abby remained separated from the rest of the chimpanzee troop to allow her to rest and bond with Jane and for Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff to monitor them. While Abby is an experienced mother, having given birth to daughter Chiana 24 years ago (who is a mother herself to 4-year-old Zuhura) it is important for staff to observe a chimpanzee mother and her infant. DZS staff immediately began documenting the frequency that Jane nurses, which should be in short durations every 60-100 minutes. They’ve also been recording maternal behaviors – some of which are simply adorable, such as when Abby holds up her baby, looks at her and then hugs her to her chest. Animal care staff are cautious to not disturb Abby as they make their observations, sitting quietly in the aisle of their holding area with mesh in between them. In those first few days, with Jane sleeping soundly on her mother’s chest between nursings, Abby’s tired eyes would grow heavy and she’d gently give Jane a few comforting pats on her back before falling asleep herself.

Jane’s grip grows stronger each day. She is now holding on tightly to her mom’s chest with both hands and feet, only occasionally needing a little extra support. After a few days of observations, staff determined that Abby and Jane were ready to move to the dayroom of the indoor habitat and meet some of the other chimpanzees. Abby greeted her friends Trixi and Tanya and began to groom with them by the windows while Jane slept in her arms. Abby denied Tanya’s request to touch Jane’s hand, so Tanya settled with looking closely at Jane while she made her nest nearby.

Over the next few days, Abby was reunited with the remaining chimpanzee troop members, including Jane’s father, Imara. They had a chance to see – and try to touch – Jane for the first time. Some were curious, including youngsters Ajua and Akira, who stared in apparent amazement and couldn’t take their eyes off of little Jane, while others such as Nyani barely seemed to notice the infant. Formerly the youngest of the group, Zuhura, almost 5, appeared unsure of what to think of Jane. Zuhura followed Abby everywhere in demand of the attention of her grandmother and curiously wanting to see Jane. Zuhura would repeatedly – and gently – reach out to touch Jane, but Abby would turn away and hold onto the little one tightly while trying to distract Zuhura with some playful tickles. With all 11 of the chimpanzees now together, they often are seen eagerly grooming in the sunlight by the windows, a way that chimpanzees maintain positive relationships with one another.

Abby and Jane ventured into their outdoor habitat for the first time just shy of Jane’s 2-week-old mark. Dad Imara escorted his family on a few investigative laps around the habitat before Abby decided it was time to lay down and rest again. With plenty of space, Abby has yet to identify a preferred spot to rest with Jane, but she can often be seen in and below the trees, as well as at the windows looking into the public viewing area.

It’s difficult to believe since she is still so tiny, but Jane has grown quite a bit in these last few weeks and is hitting all of her development milestones. After three weeks, Jane is awake more often and starting to look around and focus on her surroundings. She has been holding on to Abby’s chest tightly, rarely needing the support of her mother’s hand on her back, and can pull herself up and push with her legs to adjust her position if she is hungry. Although Jane will still appear small as the weeks go on, she will be making strides in her growth and development. We are all eager to watch her continue to grow and for her personality to begin to shine.

– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Animal Welfare: Sounds and Sights in the World of Rhinos

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff are studying how the Southern white rhinoceroses who live at the Detroit Zoo respond to different types of stimuli and how this may influence their welfare. Rhinos have a well-developed sense of hearing and can hear noise frequencies lower than the average human can. Sounds may also be up to twice as loud to them as they are to us. This means that the way the world sounds to a rhino is very different than what we hear. In comparison to their auditory capabilities, their eyesight is believed to be relatively poor. This may mean that they are less able to discern objects around them and that things that happen in their environment might be more startling to them. As our sensory abilities differ from those of rhinos, we have to work to increase our understanding of what environmental factors are meaningful to them. The question isn’t just what is it like to be a rhino living at the Detroit Zoo, but what is it like to be a rhino at the Detroit Zoo experiencing great welfare?

We began observing Tamba and Jasiri in 2017, both inside their building and in the outdoor habitat. We explored differences in their behavior between these spaces and in conjunction with the number of visitors present. We noted that the rhinos showed increased signs of positive welfare when presented with more choices in their visual and auditory environment. Based on this information, we designed a study to investigate specific factors that may affect the well-being of the rhinos inside their building, including stimuli from visitors. In this space, noises are amplified and the rhinos are in closer proximity to visitors, compared to their outdoor habitat.

The study took place in four phases between December of 2017 and February of 2018. During the first phase, no changes were made, allowing us to obtain baseline behavior and hormone levels for the rhinos. This gives us a point of comparison to assess any effects of changes we make. In the second phase, we increased the distance between the rhinos and visitors using a rope barrier. The larger buffer space changed both the visual and auditory environment for the rhinos by having visitors further away without reducing the amount of space available to the rhinos. During the third phase, we added large sound abatement panels, which reduce noise levels through added insulation, along the back wall of the visitor area and in the space occupied by the rhinos. Finally, in the last phase, we installed additional visual barriers, providing the rhinos with the choice to block their view of visitors.

During each phase, we collected behavioral data and fecal samples daily. Changes in behavior and concentrations of corticosterone in the fecal samples help us decipher how the rhinos responded to the changes we made. We are currently analyzing all of this data, and so far, it appears that both rhinos showed increased behavioral diversity – which is a measure of the variety and frequency of behaviors – with the modifications that were made. Animals demonstrating higher behavioral diversity are believed to be experiencing better welfare as they are more motivated to engage in a larger number of behaviors. This may be a reflection of an environment that better meets the animals’ needs.

For Jasiri and Tamba, one of the behaviors that increased in frequency is what we call object manipulation. The rhinos spend time interacting with various objects provided to them to stimulate them both physically and mentally. Both rhinos definitely like their “back scratcher” and Tamba is partial to making bells chime! This may seem counterintuitive if noise levels can impact their well-being, but it really is about choice. Tamba is in control of making those sounds – when and for how long – which is very different than having to listen to sounds you don’t enjoy. Jennifer Hamilton, DZS animal welfare programs coordinator, explains it really well. As she says, imagine that you are at a stoplight and someone in the car next to you is blasting music that you don’t like – how does that make you feel? However, when a song you do like comes on the radio, you might just turn up the volume. The good thing is that Jasiri doesn’t seem to mind any of Tamba’s “concerts”! The rhinos also spent more time investigating their indoor habitat, which they do by smelling and moving around more. This is a space they know well, so this increase in activity isn’t due to novelty. This may instead be telling us that they were more comfortable in their habitat. We also noted a new social behavior we had not previously observed.  Rhinos often spar with one another, locking horns to determine dominance. Tamba and Jasiri would rest while standing with their horns together, without any other movement typical of sparring. Although we aren’t sure what this “horn holding” means, we are interpreting it as a friendly and positive social behavior. Once we have the full results, we will be better informed about environmental features that enhance rhinoceros welfare. When we apply what we learn, we can have a direct impact on making sure Tamba and Jasiri are thriving.

– 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.

Animal Welfare: More than the “Bear” Necessities

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently renovated the grizzly bear habitat at the Detroit Zoo, doubling the amount of outdoor and indoor space available to the three rescued brothers. Staff with the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics are measuring changes in the bears’ activity budgets, behavioral diversity and fecal glucocorticoid concentrations to assess the impact of the expanded habitat. We will also be testing the efficacy of a biomarker of oxidative stress as a novel indicator of animal welfare.

The grizzly bears living at the Detroit Zoo, Mike, Thor and Boo, are brothers who were rescued in Alaska after their mother was killed by a poacher and the cubs began foraging too close to humans. At just a year old, they were too young to care for themselves and the DZS has been able to provide them with a safe place to grow up. The bears are now 7 years old and weigh approximately 900 pounds. With their inquisitive nature and significant strength, they frequently “redecorate” their habitat by moving logs around and digging in various locations. It became clear that they were outgrowing the habitat they called home since 2012.

As part of the DZS’s commitment to ensuring individual animals experience great welfare, a significant expansion of the grizzly bears’ habitat is underway. Not only will this augment the amount of land space available to the bears, it will also provide them with new behavioral choices. They will have access to more features such as caves to provide cool, shaded areas. The larger habitat will also increase natural foraging opportunities for the bears.

When we make changes that affect the lives of animals, it is important that we understand how those changes impact them. To that end, we began collecting data last fall, prior to construction, to obtain a baseline of the bears’ behavior and hormone levels. Observations continued during construction and will end two months after the bears move back into their renovated home. Zookeepers have also been filling out daily surveys to add to the information we are gathering. Fecal samples are collected daily and these will be analyzed in our lab to measure hormone levels related to how the bears react to these changes. Using these different types of data in concert will increase our understanding of the expansion effect on the bears’ overall well-being.

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.