Animal Welfare: Hormone Studies in the Endocrinology Lab

The Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) undertakes studies to find innovative and non-invasive means to evaluate how animals are faring. There are a variety of ways to do this, including looking at hormone levels, as they can reflect the internal state of an animal. Hormones control most major bodily functions, including complex systems such as emotional response. We are able to study the hormones of animals at the Detroit Zoo in our endocrinology lab; Dr. Grace Fuller, the Detroit Zoological Society’s manager of applied animal welfare science, is responsible for the work that is done here.

Oxytocin is a hormone that has the potential to tell us a lot about how animals are responding to their social environment. While commonly referenced for its role in a mother bonding with an offspring, oxytocin is involved in bonding in many social settings. It has been studied in a variety of species, including humans. One of the great things about this type of biological marker is that we can measure it in materials such as saliva and urine. This means we can obtain samples more easily, without impacting the animals in a potentially negative way, as might be the case if we had to restrain an animal to obtain a blood sample.

We have collected saliva and urine samples from the giraffes living at the Zoo to explore how social interactions might be having an effect on them. Dr. Fuller has validated (a process necessary to prove that we are indeed measuring what we think we are) our ability to detect levels of oxytocin in both types of samples, and is now looking at how levels correlate with different social situations, including changes to group composition and visitor interactions.

We look forward to sharing the results of this important work as we move forward.

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

Animal Welfare: New Penguin Center is Fit for a King

The start of a new year is the perfect opportunity to share an update on the penguin welfare project the staff of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare began in November of 2014. This kind of long-term study is an incredible opportunity for us to examine a variety of factors that affect the well-being of the individual penguins residing at the Detroit Zoo, and to contribute to the body of knowledge on penguin behavior.

Since we began, we have looked at the effect of cataract surgery on the behavior and use of space of the affected penguins, how wearing data loggers – which in our case, track water-related behaviors – impact the penguins, and very importantly, the ways in which moving to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center has changed the lives of the penguins at the Zoo.

If you have visited the new facility – the largest in the world for penguins – then you know what an incredible experience it is. Our research demonstrates that this is also the case for the penguins, a critical goal of the new habitat. Although we are not yet done with the study, we regularly explore the data to see what trends are emerging.

One such finding is the change we’ve seen in the king penguins and their use of water. Long-term data collection allows us to compare changes in behavior and habitat use over time. When we compared water-related behaviors for the king penguins in October of 2015 in the Penguinarium and October of 2016 in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, we saw that the king penguins increased their use of the water ten-fold! The new habitat has ten times the amount of water available to the penguins, so this is solid evidence that having additional space to perform species-typical behaviors is reflected in their behavior. The king penguins are making great use of the water, and this lets us know that the decisions we made in the design of their new habitat translate into an improvement in their welfare.

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This type of research is imperative if we are to understand what matters to animals living in zoos and how to best meet their needs. We just have to let them “tell” us!

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

Animal Welfare: Promoting Natural Foraging Behaviors

If you’re like me, you enjoy watching the leaves change colors, but maybe not having to rake and bag them! Trees and leaves serve an important purpose at the Detroit Zoo, and in this case, we refer to them as browse. Browse is vegetation such as twigs, young shoots and other fibrous and leafy materials that animals can consume.

Diets for animals living in zoos are formulated in much the same way as for the animals that share our homes.  A lot of research goes into the composition of each diet and ensuring it meets the nutritional requirements of that species.  What the process doesn’t take into consideration is the act of finding, manipulating and processing food to ensure it is ready for consumption.

Adding complexity and opportunities to display species-typical behaviors can contribute towards animals experiencing good welfare.  One method of doing so is through the promotion of natural foraging behaviors. Providing animals with browse is a great way to do this for many species, and this resource helps us create welfare-enhancing opportunities for the animals.

Having fresh browse may seem simple during the spring and summer months, but what about when the leaves start falling?  Several years ago, we worked with a wonderfully supportive local company to procure a commercial freezer at a reduced cost, which allows us to store browse, ensuring a steady supply throughout the winter months.  We have had the assistance of volunteers, including students from Madonna University, who help us with the packing process to make sure we have as much as will fit in the freezer. We also use space in the Zoo’s greenhouses to grow additional plants, such as bamboo.

Although browse is a natural way to encourage foraging behaviors, it can also help to stimulate other behaviors such as nesting, and provides novel elements in an animal’s environment.  These natural elements are important to the animals and further the Detroit Zoological Society’s animal welfare efforts.

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

Animal Welfare: Engaging Animals with Smashing Pumpkins

Pumpkins are everywhere this time of year, from front porches to spiced lattes. At the Detroit Zoo, you may notice pumpkins and gourds decorating the grounds, immersing visitors in the feeling of fall and generating excitement for Zoo Boo.

You may also see them in animal habitats, where they serve a different purpose. The Detroit Zoological Society is committed to ensuring that each animal experiences great welfare, and this involves providing animals with engaging and stimulating opportunities. We work hard to create habitats that enable animals to display species-typical behaviors such as foraging for their food. Providing additional opportunities to interact with the environment, referred to as environmental enrichment, is one important part of that work to increase complexity and novelty.

Each animal can choose whether to interact with these features – the ability to make choices is a critical factor in positive welfare. Furthermore, this can result in a greater diversity of behaviors, another indicator of positive welfare. Pumpkins are given out whole or are carved to hide other edible items, and placed in different locations for various species, all depending on the behaviors we are trying to encourage. While pumpkins and other seasonal items are a fun way to accomplish this during the Halloween season, the animals residing at the Detroit Zoo are provided with enriching activities daily by their dedicated zookeepers.

The public is invited to share in this experience and observe the animals eating, playing with, tearing apart and smashing their seasonal goodies during Smashing Pumpkins on Wednesday, October 12 and Saturday, October 22.

 

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

Animal Welfare: Workshop Draws Zoo Staff from Around the Globe

In many parts of the world, October means the start of cooler weather and fall celebrations. For the staff of the Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, it also means the arrival of participants in our annual workshop, “From Good Care to Great Welfare”. This year marks the fifth time we have held the workshop and this time around, we are joined by animal care professionals from the U.S., Montreal, Guatemala and Singapore.

We are spending five days discussing what animal welfare is, and how to assess and improve it in zoos.  The central theme of better understanding how animals in zoos and aquariums experience the world is woven through the lectures, activities and projects.

This message is key, as providing animals with what they need to thrive is dependent on each individual’s perception of their environment, both social and physical. We must create an awareness of the sensory abilities of other species, how environmental factors impact them, and the responsibility we all have to ensuring positive animal welfare.

The workshop is an exciting time for all of us, as we get to know people from around the globe committed to advancing animal welfare and as a result, enhance our own ability to impact the wellbeing of animals living in zoos and aquariums.

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

Veterinary Care: My, What Big Teeth You Have!

Dental care is a very important component of maintaining the health and welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo. Many of the animals in our care live longer than they would in the wild, and we need to ensure that they maintain healthy, strong teeth throughout their lifespans.

Some of our patients are cooperative; for example, the polar bears and chimpanzees have been trained to open their mouths wide for a quick visual exam, and the seals allow us to brush their teeth daily to reduce tartar build up. But it’s not always that easy – our patients all have very different mouths, and some teeth are easier to see than others. During every health check, we make sure to do a thorough dental exam.

 

Most of our carnivores and reptiles have mouths that open wide and teeth that are easy to examine. Aardvarks, kangaroos and pigs are examples of animals that have elongated, deep mouths that are very hard to visualize, but we use a variety of tools to get the job done. A laryngoscope with a very long blade or small endoscope can be used to see in the dark, tight spaces inside the mouth, such as with a Meishan pig. Pigs can develop dental problems as they age, so it’s important to check each tooth and treat any potential problems early.

Our patients also have different kinds and shapes of teeth. The teeth of carnivores and herbivores are shaped differently, and their structure can vary as well. We look up the dental formula (how many incisors, premolars and molars a species has) and anatomy of the teeth before exams, and we have developed a new dental exam form to help us identify the teeth and record any problems we find. For example, beavers have front incisors that grow continuously, and we check their teeth frequently for overgrowth.

Some of our patients have very, very large teeth, like Kisa, a 13-year-old female Amur tiger. During Kisa’s most recent health check, we were able to see that there was swelling around her lower left canine tooth. We scheduled an exam with our visiting veterinary dentist, Dr. Ben Colmery. He made a small incision along the side of the tooth and found an area where the enamel had eroded away. This type of enamel resorption is common in older domestic cats, and has been seen in our geriatric zoo patients as well. If left untreated, serious problems can develop that can make it necessary to extract the tooth. Dr. Colmery smoothed the lesion and applied a special paste to help stimulate healing. We also scaled and polished all of her teeth to remove tartar and plaque.

Our goal in the animal health department is provide the best possible care to all of the wonderful animals that live at the Detroit Zoo. We work to understand the kinds of health problems found in zoo animals, and to prevent these problems whenever possible. Finding dental disease and other health problems early allows us to be proactive in our efforts to maintain excellent health and welfare.

– Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Animal Welfare: Positive Interactions Between Humans and Animals

Humans and animals interact in different ways, and in a zoo setting, these kinds of interactions take many forms. The animals interact with the zookeepers who care for them, the animal welfare researchers who monitor them, the zoo staff who work around them, and the visitors who come to see them.

Depending on the situation, interactions with humans can be viewed by the animals as negative, neutral or positive and over time, if a certain type is most prevalent, can result in a corresponding relationship between animals and humans.

One important factor that influences the type of relationship that develops is how animals perceive humans, which is influenced by what species they are, their individual temperaments and past experiences. Some species, and some individuals, are more fearful of humans and will avoid them as much as possible. Others may see humans as something of interest. However, our behavior when we are around them can still influence how they are feeling, and if our actions are perceived as a threat or something that creates stress, the animal’s experience becomes negative.

The work zookeepers do is so critical to ensuring animals living in zoos experience good welfare. They create positive interactions through actions like feeding and positive reinforcement training, and this helps to establish positive relationships. Having these positive relationships with the humans with whom they interact the most can help the animals to be more comfortable in situations that could be stressful.

Understanding how we impact animals through our actions is incredibly important. We are ultimately responsible for ensuring each individual animal at the zoo has great welfare and we can take steps to do just that. Each one of us can treat every animal we encounter, whether it be at the zoo, in our neighborhoods and in our homes with respect, appreciating that they have needs and that our behavior can affect them.

When you visit the zoo, enjoy watching the animals living their lives, know that they are sensitive to what is happening around them, and share the same sense of awe and privilege I feel knowing that my actions can help them feel comfortable and safe.

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