Animal Welfare: What’s Heat Got to Do With it?

Have you ever been so worked up about something that it “made your blood boil” or told someone they should “chill out”?  We often equate emotions with temperature and the English language has a number of idioms that reflect this association. As it turns out, there is a real and biologically based reason for this.  As we experience some emotions, our bodies undergo a number of processes, including changes in our temperature. This is the case for other species as well, and research has shown that particular emotions can be assessed using temperature fluctuations.

Finding new ways to evaluate the emotional lives of animals is a critical part of advancing our understanding of animal welfare. It is also incredibly important that we develop methods that are non-invasive, thereby not affecting the animals as we assess their well-being. Infrared thermography is a potential way for us to do just this, and staff at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) is working on new ways to apply it at the Detroit Zoo. Infrared thermography (IRT) is a type of technology that allows us to remotely measure the temperature of an object using a camera. The images, called thermograms, show different colors to represent temperatures and this allows us to take measurements without having to touch the object.

In recent years, the impact of interactions and relationships with humans on the welfare of animals has begun to receive more attention. As animals living in zoos invariably encounter and interact with humans on a variety of levels, it is crucial that we understand how these relationships affect animal welfare. In some cases, it may be easy to assess how an animal is reacting, but in others, we have to use means that are more scientific. CZAAWE has developed a number of projects to examine human-animal relationships using several methods, including IRT.

There are several types of experiences during which visitors can interact with an animal at the Detroit Zoo. These encounters are entirely voluntary, as the animals (and the visitors) can choose whether they want to participate. The Giraffe Encounter is a lot of fun for guests, and, we presume, for the giraffes as well, but we cannot be sure. Led by Dr. Matt Heintz, animal welfare research associate for the Detroit Zoological Society, we utilized behavior, IRT and hormone data to learn more about the giraffe’s side of the experience. During this public feeding opportunity, the giraffes receive browse (natural vegetation) from the animal care staff and from Zoo visitors. Based on the data, the feeds are indeed a positive experience, but do not appear to be socially motivated. The amount of engagement we saw in the behavioral data, along with a lack of change in cortisol levels – which can tell us if an animal is experiencing stress – and increases in body temperature reflective of stimulation, all point to an enjoyable event for the giraffes. We also measured levels of oxytocin – a biological marker that increases during positive social experiences – and saw no such increases. This leads us to believe that for the giraffes, the feeds are an enjoyable way to score some extra greens, but not because they get to interact with us.

It is important that we ask questions about the perception animals have of their world and any impact we may be having on their welfare. Science is contributing to improvements in animal welfare and one of CZAAWE’s goals is to expand that knowledge and share it to help ensure the well-being of animals living in the care of humans.

– 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.

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.

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.

king-swimming-jennie-miller

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: 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.

Animal Welfare: What, How and Why

I have written a number of blog entries on the animal welfare research projects we are conducting through the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, and how collaborations enable us to move forward with many of the initiatives we undertake. Let’s now go back to the basics and explore what animal welfare is, how we go about evaluating the welfare of individual animals, and why this is fundamentally important.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Animal Welfare Committee defines animal welfare as an animal’s collective physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time, and is measurable on a continuum from good to poor. Although there are a number of other definitions available, the main factors remain consistent: Welfare is measured at the level of the individual animal, it encompasses all aspects of an animal’s life, and it can change over the course of time. The goal for anyone working with and around animals is to ensure that they each experience good welfare.

Going back many decades, people have long been concerned with the welfare of animals. In the 1960s, the Five Freedoms model was developed, originally as a means to assess the welfare of farm animals. This model states that animals should experience freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from fear and distress, and freedom to express normal behavior. Since its initial development, this model has been applied in a variety of settings, including in zoos. However, the Five Freedoms model can be improved upon, as it is focused on minimizing negative states rather than also promoting positive welfare. Additionally, some of what is stated can be counter-productive to an animal’s survival. For example, if an animal never experiences thirst, then it may never drink, and this would not be a good thing. Therefore, the absolute freedom from some of the experiences is not even feasible. Rather, the important factor is ensuring that the resources necessary to perform the associated behaviors are available.

More recently, the Five Domains model was created, which delineates how nutrition, physical health, behavior and the environment (both physical and social) feed into an animal’s emotional state. The outcome is the individual’s welfare status. For example, if an animal is hungry but does not have access to food, this will result in a feeling of hunger, which will be a negative factor in the overall welfare status of that animal. If an animal is able to express natural behaviors, he or she will experience satisfaction, which is a positive emotion and contributes to positive welfare. All physical influences are taken into consideration as well as how they impact the internal, emotional state of the animal, in order to assess overall well-being.

Assessing welfare is a complex process that requires an understanding of the needs of a species and an individual as well as experience with scientific methods. It also typically includes multiple types of measures such as behavioral and physiological indicators. One can begin by evaluating what is made available to an animal, such as the physical space, the type of food presented and the social opportunities provided. This kind of assessment is known as a resource-based assessment, as it focuses on what we provide to the animals. To truly understand how an animal is faring, however, we also need to understand how they respond to their environment, and as such, conduct animal-based assessments. In our case, we usually observe how animals are interacting with their physical environment, with one another if they are a social species, and we utilize various physiological measures such as body condition, overall health and even hormone levels.

In order to ensure animals living in zoos are thriving, we need to understand what matters to them and that requires us to figure out how to “ask” them. Using existing methods and developing new ones to assess welfare is critical if we are to make evidence-based decisions for caring for animals. By letting animals tell us what is working and what needs to be improved, we are making their welfare a priority, and this is the ultimate responsibility we have to each and every animal living in the care of humans.

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

Animal Welfare: Observing Natural Behaviors in Antarctica

Watching a penguin “fly” through the water is breathtaking. In this medium, they are agile, fast and truly awesome. Having the opportunity to see penguins porpoising in Antarctica was incredible, as this is a behavior we don’t often get to see in a captive setting. They reach high speeds and shoot in and out of the water to traverse long distances, at times avoiding predators, and at times being the predators. This is one of the reasons why, from an animal welfare perspective, the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, with its 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep pool, is such an exciting endeavor. This expansive water feature will allow the penguins to display even more of their natural swimming behaviors, minus the predatory dangers, of course!

Watching a penguin walk on land is a somewhat different experience. They amble around, seemingly less acclimated to solid ground. Having now observed three species of penguins in their natural habitat, I can tell you that despite how they might appear, they are good climbers, managing to navigate over rocky, unstable and slippery terrain to gain access to nesting sites and hungry chicks. They can even move rather quickly, as demonstrated when they are attempting to wean their hungry chicks, who will often run after their parents while begging for more food.

I spent a lot of time observing the penguins at the various colonies we visited while in Antarctica, very similar to what the dedicated staff, residents, interns and volunteers of the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare do right here at the Detroit Zoo. For the gentoos, chinstraps and Adelie penguins we saw, this is the time of year during which they are still spending more time on land, as chicks are getting ready to fledge. I was able to focus on parent-offspring interactions, as well as how young penguins interact with one another in groups referred to as crèches. This is a critical time in the youngsters’ lives, as they prepare to leave the only home they have known so far. I was also able to focus on the type of environmental features that the penguins encounter, and how they interact with them. I was even able to test out our infrared thermography camera to look at temperature gradients between penguins at different population densities.

Having the opportunity to observe animals in their natural surroundings is extremely helpful when you are attempting to understand their needs and determining how to best meet them. You gain a very different appreciation for the challenges they are faced with, and it really makes you think about the level of complexity that comprises any environment. I am incredibly fortunate to have had such an opportunity, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I have I learned for the benefit of the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This is the type of care with which we need to approach habitat design, as well as how we assess the welfare of individual animals. A penguin’s natural habitat is full of challenges, both physical and social, but they are challenges that the animals are equipped to deal with. We should be searching for ways to ensure animals living in zoos have the right kind of stimulation – the right kind of challenges – if we want to see them thrive.

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