Caring for Zoo animals
Zoo animals are in our care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; we can influence their wellbeing through our animal care programs. To develop an effective animal care program that supports positive animal welfare states requires many considerations; not the least of which is being able to assess its effectiveness. Our actions with respect to animal care must be justified, humane and effective. Factors such as species biology, history of individual animals, enclosure design and human animal interactions all contribute to the experience of zoo animals. In addition to the experience of zoo animals, as zoos we need to consider visitor experience and the way in which animals are perceived by our staff, visitors and the community.
As part of Zoos Victoria’s commitment to animal welfare, we run an annual Animal Welfare Survey. This involve a series of 20 questions that guide assessment of our animal care programs, our facilities for housing animals and the behaviours demonstrated by animals. This year, prior to running the Animal Welfare Survey we decided it would be useful to prime our life sciences teams, and indulge in an animal welfare immersion experience. This shaped into a three-day session that would introduce the concepts of animal welfare and animal ethics; consider the evolution of animal behaviour and the needs of species and finally discuss ways to monitor animal welfare.
As planning for the event progressed, we agreed that inviting ‘non-Zoos Vic staff’ would provide the opportunity to share experiences and bring greater diversity of perspectives. At the very least we were keen to have people think nothing but animal welfare for three days; to hear presentations, to be involved with discussions, to observe animals, and most importantly to reflect on the way we care for animals and likely impacts of our actions on animal wellbeing.
Hearing about ways to construct and defend a logical argument was an effective way to have us think about the way in which others might perceive our decisions about animal care. We explored concepts around animal ethics, and the relationship between animal ethics and animal welfare, led by Dr Jenny Gray. Working in groups we developed arguments based on events such as Harambe the Gorilla and Marius the Giraffe. This provided an appreciation of ways in which others may question and challenge the actions of zoos.
Approaches to zoo animal care, including science-based evidence to assess our practices have been evolving rapidly. Doctor Terry Maple shared his journey, transforming Atlanta Zoo from one of the worst to one of the best zoos, and the value of research in this journey. This paved the way to consider the history of animal welfare science. Content was drawn from the 2017 Animal Welfare Symposium that was held in Detroit.
Perceptions of zoo animals were also considered. Zoos Victoria’s Michelle Lang spoke about the social licence of zoos, and the way in which zoos may be portrayed by media, including social media. Claire Ford discussed Taronga Conservation Society Australia’s approach to providing for the respect and dignity of animals based on nine criteria that guide decision-making at Taronga.
Back to nature – species biology
The need to base our animal care programs on species biology was emphasised. Professor Theresa Jones’ presentation on the function and utility of animal behaviour, and evolutionary history of behaviour further emphasised the need to be mindful of species biology when considering approaches to animal care. The objectives of our programs were debated with discussion about the wildness of zoo animals, and the goal of thriving rather than surviving. The need to consider individual animals, including their history was also noted. A practical session to re-inforce learning included animal observations, in order to start developing an ethogram so that we can better understand the behaviour of our zoo animals.
Zoo animals experiences are shaped by their housing, thus enclosure design is a critical component of any animal care program. Zoo architect Jon Coe shared his learnings in enclosure design, including providing animals with choice and a level of control over their environment.
Monitoring animal welfare
The evolution of animal welfare thinking was considered briefly, including the shift from Five Freedoms to the Five Domains assessment model. Sally Sherwen provided a chronological sequence of milestones relating to animal welfare including the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.
Assessing zoo animal wellbeing is required in order to determine the success of our programs and provide opportunities for improved practices. An overview of Zoos Victoria’s Animal Welfare Survey was provided, followed with a practical session using the Animal Welfare Survey to assess one of our animal enclosures. Examples of animal-welfare based research at ZV were provided including impacts of visitor behaviour on penguins, and the impacts of after-hours concerts on behaviour of zoo animals.
ZAA’s Nicolas de Graaf then spoke about Accreditation 2020 which is the approach that ZAA use to provide framework for evolution of zoo practices to support continuous improvement of animal welfare outcomes.
Attendees and Feedback
About 90 people attended including representatives from ZAA, RSPCA, universities, and ZAA members based in Australia, Singapore and Papua New Guinea. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, such as ‘This is one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking workshops/conferences I have been to. Well done!’ Thanks to all of you who attended and contributed to discussions, adding to the richness of the event.
Amanda Embury, Senior Manager Life Sciences, Wildlife Conservation and Science, Zoos Victoria