Planning for the welfare of individual animals

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Willie B
Willie B

When silverback Willie B was reintroduced to other gorillas in a naturalistic setting at Zoo Atlanta in 1989 after spending 30 years alone at the zoo, Zoo Atlanta officials were cautiously optimistic. Fortunately, Willie B grew to be a successful father and leader, and a symbol of the rebirth of a once failing zoo.

Ten years and five offspring later, Willie B died, and his memorial services in 2000 drew crowds of more than 7,000 people and countless letters and pictures of condolence. To Terry L. Maple, PhD, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, it was proof that zoo visitors recognized Willie B as an individual.

"These animals are regarded by our public as distinct individuals, with names, with identities, with personalities," Dr. Maple said during his presentation on planning to boost individual animal welfare at the 2002 AVMA Animal Welfare Forum in Milwaukee, Oct. 11.

Zoos also must recognize animals as individuals and create long-term plans to maximize the welfare of each animal, said Dr. Maple, who helped rebuild Zoo Atlanta after a crisis in the 1980s.

"You can't afford to ignore any animal," he said. "You have to invest your time and your efforts to look at each and every animal's future, every year."

As zoos try to shift their focus to conservation of species by participating in species survival plans and other conservation programs, it's important to keep individual welfare in mind.

Terry L. Maple, PhD
Terry L. Maple, PhD

"We no longer ignore the individual, as we struggle with the decisions of how to manage these endangered populations," Dr. Maple said about the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's species management programs.

Dr. Maple said scientific research on animal behavior in the wild and captivity is a powerful tool for developing welfare plans for zoos.

"Fundamentally, (solving) animal welfare issues depends on sound science," he said. "We've got to infuse principles of sound science in our planning process."

Zoos must use science to develop habitats that allow animals to engage in normal behaviors and to develop training methods, he said. He added that it's also important for zoos to develop business plans and to seek out experts to help with the planning process.

Dr. Maple explained the crisis that nearly closed Zoo Atlanta, then called the Atlanta Zoo, in the 1980s eventually helped to strengthen the zoo and its management. He said he hoped other zoos could learn from the Atlanta's former problems and subsequent recovery. Ultimately, it was sound planning, community and professional support that led the zoo to become one of the nation's best, he said.