Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their 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.

Detroit Zoological Society’s Online Resource Center Expands Knowledge of Animal Welfare and Ethics

When the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) created the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE), one of the main goals was to increase the knowledge about the welfare of animals living in the care of humans. We developed an online resource center, which is regularly updated, to ensure as much information about animal welfare and ethics can be easily found. Dr. Matt Heintz, an animal welfare research associate for the DZS, stays up to date on newly published articles and is responsible for growing this incredible resource.

The database now contains more than 7,000 references, with some dating back as far as 1932. It represents a broad range of topics as the expansive field of animal welfare continues to grow. Users can search for specific topics, species and authors. Each entry includes a summary of the publication and a link to where the full article can be found. Some are made freely available to anyone by the journal publishers, while others may require a fee or access through subscriptions. The CZAAWE online resource center and the searches that can be performed are entirely free, as access to knowledge is important in our collective efforts to better understand animal welfare and ethics. This database has proven to be a valuable resource and in just the last four years, it has been accessed more than ten thousand times by people in 102 countries.

Dr. Heintz analyzed the database to look for trends in the literature and to help identify gaps in the knowledge currently available. Although a wide breadth of welfare topics are represented, much of the published literature is focused on mammalian species. This tells us that more research needs to center on amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates and reptiles. He also found a fun way to visually represent the trends using a word cloud image. The terms that are more commonly found in the references are shown in a larger font.

The goal of increasing knowledge about animal welfare and ethics is an important one and we will continue to dedicate ourselves to increasing the usefulness and accessibility of this resource. If you want to learn more about animal welfare and ethics, we encourage you to check out the online resource center, which can be found at www.czaw.org/resources. The more we know, the more we can contribute to promoting great animal welfare.

– 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: A Red Panda’s-Eye View

There are many questions I’d like to ask animals. In the case of the red pandas who live at the Detroit Zoo, one question would have to do with their newly expanded and renovated digs. Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi have moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest, where so much work has been done to ensure they will enjoy this wonderful habitat.

It would be nice if we could channel our internal Dr. Doolittle and simply ask them what they think, but what would be the fun in that? Since we don’t share a common language with red pandas, our challenge is to figure out what they are telling us using means other than traditional human communication. To determine the impact of the Red Panda Forest on the well-being of the three red pandas, Detroit Zoological Society staff are conducting behavioral observations on each one of them as they explore their home.

Red pandas are endangered and native to Asia’s high-altitude temperate forests. With 50 percent of their natural range in the eastern Himalayas, they are well-suited to the cold temperatures and snow we experience in Michigan. Red pandas use their long, bushy tails for both balance (as they traverse tree canopies) and protection from the elements. Although they are a carnivore species, they are actually leaf-eaters, with bamboo comprising the primary component of their diet in the wild. They are also crepuscular, meaning they are most active early in the morning and later in the day, with their natural breeding season during the late winter months.

Detroit Zoological Society staff have been caring for red pandas for several decades. This experience proved invaluable when designing the new features in their habitat. The Red Panda Forest incorporates tall, natural trees to create a complex arboreal pathway, as well as a flowing stream and misting areas. One of the really cool aspects of the habitat is the suspension bridge that brings us eye-level with the pandas when they are in the tree canopy. Not only does this offer us a great view of the pandas, but it will also allow us to gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing. What does the world look and sound like from that height? Part of promoting good welfare for an animal is to be sensitive to their perception of the word around them.

We look forward to uncovering how the three red pandas use their new habitat, including how each one differs in their behavior and preferences. Knowing this enables us to create opportunities for each of them to thrive. We hope you check out the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest during your next visit to the Detroit Zoo and see this incredible new space for yourself.

– 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: 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.