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: 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.

Animal Welfare: Shelter from the (Winter) Storm

Baby, its cold outside! The New Year brought some very low temperatures to our area, which can be a challenge for humans and non-human animals alike. Detroit Zoological Society staff take a number of measures to ensure each animal living at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center is comfortable year-round, including when temperatures dip into the negatives.

For some animals, this may mean spending time in behind-the-scenes areas where the temperature is controlled and any impacts of snowfall are removed. Cold-tolerant species, such as the red pandas or the Amur tiger, have the option to enjoy the winter weather or remain inside if they choose – this is part of what allows them to experience great welfare.

In many cases, we also make modifications to habitats to create heated areas and wind shelters – for example, the lions have heated rocks they’re often seeing lounging on – and we often add extra bedding materials to various habitats as well. This way, animals that are less comfortable being inside a building can still “find shelter from the storm”. These different options allow all of the animals to enjoy their home in the same way our heating systems, fireplaces and warm blankets keep us comfortable.

We should be thinking about these things for the animals who share our homes as well. Spending time outside needs to be done more cautiously in very cold weather, even for our furry friends. As domesticated species, they are not as well equipped to deal with harsh weather as wild animals are. There are many steps you can take to protect your companion animals from the cold, even if they do spend time outside.

Winter weather in Michigan often makes us appreciate the other seasons of the year, but there is still much to be enjoyed (and this is coming from someone who moved here from Florida!). We are still treated to beautiful, sunny days as fresh snow blankets everything around us. The 125 acres of the Detroit Zoo offer a great opportunity for us to experience the wonder of winter and marvel in the beauty of wildlife.

Many of the animals at the Detroit Zoo make the most of the cold weather, including the Japanese macaques (aptly also called snow monkeys), bison, otters, polar bears, wolves and bald eagles. You can also see animals including the giraffes, rhinos, gorillas and chimpanzees from viewing areas inside their buildings. The Free-Flight Aviary, Butterfly Garden, National Amphibian Conservation Center and Holden Reptile Conservation Center are great places to spend some time indoors during your visit. And although the Polk Penguin Conservation Center provides a more Antarctic climate for its feathery occupants, it also offers visitors a nice break from the blustery outdoors this time of year. Be sure to catch the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in the Ford Education Center too – 100 winning images from the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife photography competition. Come out and experience all of this for yourself – the Detroit Zoo is open all winter long!

– 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: 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.