Center takes integrated approach to zoo animal welfare

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Although major advances in zoo animal welfare have been made in recent years, researchers say more can be done.

The Chicago Zoological Society has established a program of study at the Brookfield Zoo bringing together a range of sciences to evaluate the well-being of captive animals.

What the Center for the Science of Animal Well-Being is doing is taking an interdisciplinary approach to determine whether the efforts made to provide captive species and individual animals with a satisfying life are, in fact, working.

"It really is a complex question," acknowledged Dan Wharton, PhD, senior vice president for animal programs for CZS. While great strides have been taken in the areas of zoo animal housing and husbandry, the center is meant to take the research to the next level, Dr. Wharton said.

The center will use basic and applied research to aid scientists and researchers in understanding better and more accurately assessing the behavioral indicators associated with animal management practices.

The center's work will not be limited to Brookfield Zoo, which is managed by the CZS, but will also be available to zoos and aquariums around the globe.

"There is an escalating momentum worldwide to enhance our understanding of what constitutes animal well-being as well as increased recognition of our moral obligation to ensure the best possible well-being for animals in our care," explained Nadja Wielebnowski, PhD, head of Behavioral Endocrinology for CZS and vice president of conservation science.

In May, the center hosted more than 100 researchers and animal care experts at its first international symposium exploring the science of measuring zoo animal welfare.

Identifying good animal welfare is a challenge, summed up speaker Vicky Melfi, PhD, of the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon, England. The assumption is that the absence of illness or poor living conditions automatically means an animal is doing well, which isn't necessarily true.

Many ideas about housing and husbandry practices are based on perception, not science, Dr. Melfi explained. "If no problems are encountered, the animal must be OK," she said, "but our goal should be to give animals a luxurious life."

Oftentimes the zoo community suffers from what Dr. Melfi called a "taxa bias," meaning much of the research is directed toward mammals—especially great apes—while the welfare needs of reptiles and other species are studied far less.

Identifying and addressing these sorts of research gaps is a reason the Center for the Science of Animal Well-Being was created in the first place.

"We're all really good after years of experience of making a best guess at what's best for the animals, but we want to get beyond that," Dr. Wharton said. "We want to be able to defend our assessments with a much greater degree of objectivity."