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Studying behavior to understand animals’ wants and needs

Let’s be real, human-animal communication can be complicated! The largest issue being that we don’t speak the same languages. So how can we ask our animals if they’re happy or find out what they need if we can’t converse? Have you ever seen your dog do something interesting and you thought “Why is Fido doing that?” I bet what you did next is the very same thing we do here at Zoo Atlanta: You watched Fido and you started to learn his patterns, his daily rhythms, and you Googled dog behavior. From observing animals, we can learn what their behavior means; to do this, we develop an ethogram, which is a record of behaviors exhibited by an animal species. This is a useful tool because we can use the ethogram to distinguish “normal” or “species-specific” behaviors from “maladaptive” or atypical behaviors. In addition, it allows us to begin to see patterns of behavior that may indicate state of mind.

Our giraffes Etana and Isooba are always getting their steps in, but that’s just what herbivores do. As a prey species, they don’t want to stay in one location too long and are usually on the move. Locomotion is a normal behavior that a giraffe does throughout the day. We would expect Isooba to walk a certain amount of time per day, yet if Isooba was to walk back and forth in a loop along a particular area without any other behavioral variation, we would consider that abnormal. When we see a behavior like this, we should try not to generalize or assume why he’s performing the behavior. We need to observe Isooba and try to figure out why he’s pacing instead of engaging in other normal behaviors. If we can figure out why an animal behaves in a certain way, we can then address it if necessary. Observations are a powerful method for us to understand why an animal is doing something. When we observe normal behavior, we can assume that our animals are happy and have most of the things they want and need (and even when our animals are happy, we still strive to make it even better!). When we observe maladaptive behavior, we are able to put focus on the individual to ensure that we satisfy their needs and wants.

Another way that we gain insight into the welfare of our animals is through discerning their affective (or emotional) states. Affective states can be either negative or positive and can greatly influence how an animal perceives their environment. What we want to see is a balance of positive and negative states, just like we see in ourselves! Ever been in a bad mood and found that every minor hindrance fueled your bad mood? We can assume that individuals in a negative emotional state (such as being anxious) will perceive their environment more negatively. Similarly, an animal that is in a negative affective state may engage in an atypical behavior when they lack something in their environment.

Fortunately, there are many ways to research affective states. Physiological measurements such as changes in body weight, fluctuations in hormonal levels, and telemetric parameters are useful because drastic changes in these baselines can possibly indicate insufficient welfare. Preference tests are also another way to measure animal welfare. This animal-centric approach allows animals to select between options (such as bedding or diet items) and thus adjusting welfare to match the animal’s preference. We all have our preferences (no judgment here!) and so do animals when it comes to the things that we provide them at Zoo Atlanta.

By paying attention and taking measures to understand what our animals want and need, we’re taking crucial steps to ensure that our animals continue to thrive at Zoo Atlanta!

Alexz Allen
Research Associate

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl