Conspecific Social Organization
Since the 1970s, zoos have made large strides in improving the welfare of the animals in our care. Closely aligning how we manage our animals to their wild counterparts is extremely rewarding and vital to their welfare, yet is often still challenging.
One of the most challenging aspects of animal welfare is species-specific social organization. Historically, zoos were once managed without consideration for their animals’ natural history, and animals were solitarily housed, or housed in pairs with a focus on presentation rather than conservation and education. As zoos began to focus on conservation, welfare research provided evidence that species-appropriate groups are critical for individual and population welfare alongside larger, more complex habitats and encouraging species-specific behaviors.
Social interactions among conspecifics, or individuals of the same species, are especially vital for gregarious species such as wolves or elephants who live in large groups. Interactions such as social grooming are important for physical health (i.e., removing parasites and maintaining proper hygiene), psychological health (i.e., facilitating the formation of bonds and relationships), and physiological health (i.e., the release of oxytocin). Other social interactions could include feeding together, playing together, or simply being in proximity to one another. These benefits help promote good welfare and provide additional social benefits such as improved reproductive and offspring rearing success, while providing our animals with ways to potentially reduce stress in zoo management.
Here at Zoo Atlanta, one of the best examples for seeing animals interact and thrive in their natural social group is at the Gorilla Deck. Our gorillas can be seen grooming one another, feeding together, playing, and even cuddling when it’s cold or rainy.
However, not all species are gregarious, and are often managed solitarily, such as tigers or okapis. Therefore, the social management of these species is usually different. For example, housing solitary tigers with many conspecifics can increase stress behavior and can lead to increased conflict and potential injuries. To reduce this, many zoos with multiple solitary animals often rotate access to habitats or equip shared habitats with visual barriers that prevent frequent social interactions. These measures help to reduce interactions that would be stressful and detrimental to animals who would normally avoid conspecifics outside of specific contexts such as mating. Suhana, our clouded leopard, is probably quite content to live alone rather than to share her habitat as the gorillas do with one another.
Aligning our management of zoo animals with their natural history in mind, especially their social group construction, has allowed us to strive for better welfare. We are not without continuing challenges, but welfare research continues to improve how we care for our animals, especially encouraging zoos to create habitats that allow them to be as social or nonsocial as they please.