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Beyond basic care: What do animals want?

Every day, animal care professionals are responsible for the welfare of the animals. But what does that mean? Welfare has many aspects, from activities and interactions like enrichment and training, to providing the opportunity to make choices and have an aspect of control over life. What makes you happy? I like to sit and read a book, but I also like to enjoy a meal with friends. How do we accommodate our social animals’ needs? What about the solitary ones? How do we know what they want?

If I asked Chelsea the tiger what made her happy, one thing she might say if she could talk was that she valued alone time. Understanding the natural behavior of our animals allows us to offer them a baseline of good welfare, and then we can improve from there. Tigers are solitary, so most likely she wouldn’t like Sparky (our male tiger) coming into her habitat while she’s there! Now let’s ask Floyd the little gorilla that same question. He’d be pretty miserable all by himself without his sisters to play with! Animal care professionals are experts at welfare—they know the natural behaviors of their animals, and they know how to encourage those behaviors at the Zoo. While Chelsea may not actively hunt a live animal (we have to think about the welfare of prey animals as well), we still need to encourage her to perform natural behaviors like stalking. Feeding her a whole leg of goat, for example, encourages that natural hunting behavior. That leg of goat is enrichment, and that’s just one part of welfare.

Having choices is another important aspect of welfare. We always ask Larry the grey parrot if he wants to participate in a bird presentation. If he doesn’t voluntarily step up onto a keeper’s hand, we won’t make him. Similarly, in conjunction with Emory University, we carry out cognitive research with our orangutans. We offer them the opportunity to interact with a touch-screen computer with challenges designed specifically for them so we can study their memory. It is completely up to them if they interact with it. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. A note of interest: most of them do choose to interact with the computer every time! This sort of cognitive challenge is another form of enrichment.

Having control over what happens to you is another important aspect of welfare. If we go back to Larry the grey parrot, let’s say we’ve asked him to participate in a bird presentation and he chooses to be part of it. Halfway through, he changes his mind. That’s okay, and we won’t make him stay if he doesn’t want to—so he has the choice to participate, and control over how long the session lasts. Having choices allows animals to have more control over their environment.

How do we know what makes animals happy? Zoo Atlanta carries out welfare research to determine the best care for our animals, and we also rely on the body of scientific and animal care professional knowledge to do so. While some topics have been well studied (which animal is social? Which is solitary?), others need more research. Some current Zoo Atlanta research asks questions such as how do animals behave in new habitats? How do they respond to events like IllumiNights? How do noise levels affect them? What is their state of mind?

Tune in for the next post in the welfare series for information on how we go about asking our animals what they want.

Marieke Cassia Gartner, Ph.D.
Director of Animal Welfare

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl