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Studying the substrates our giraffes prefer

Throughout my career as an animal care professional, there have been several opportunities to get super nerdy and use research to make decisions affecting animal well-being. One such occasion just popped up recently in the Hoofstock Department. We had the opportunity to change up the substrate in the behind-the-scenes area for the Zoo’s giraffe herd. During the Grand New View construction period, the giraffes spent some time behind the scenes. Because of this change, we switched the indoor floor coverings from pine shavings to river sand. While river sand is softer and provides more cushioning for the giraffes to lie on, it also creates a lot of dust, is more difficult to keep clean, and requires more upkeep by the Hoofstock Team.  With summer on the way and the temperatures rising, the giraffes are spending less time indoors and more time out on habitat. With less time spent inside, the care team discussed changing how we manage their substrate seasonally. It was then proposed to switch to pine shavings during the warmer months and sand in the cooler parts of the year. Shavings (and rubber mats for padding) have the benefit of being less dusty and easier to keep clean. While each keeper had their own individual opinions, we had no idea how the giraffes felt on the matter. While our opinions were split, we all agreed — who better to make the decisions than the giraffes themselves! 

With the help of some night vision cameras, we were able to track the giraffes’ movements overnight and see how they, actually, utilize the space. We collected data every night for three weeks and learned a lot of cool things from the footage! As long as the weather is warm enough, they have access to an outdoor area. Before collecting data, I assumed that the giraffes probably spent a good amount of time in these outdoor spaces overnight. However, on average, the giraffes only spend 1-2 hours outside every night. They chose to spend most of their time in the indoor spaces. This discovery made our bedding decision even more impactful knowing that that is where they were choosing to spend the majority of their evenings. On further inspection of the footage, we found that the boys enjoy spending their time in the same section of their indoor space. Even wilder, each individual giraffe spends (on average) 5.5 hours a night lying down! This was a huge surprise to most of us who don’t often see our animals lying down during the day. Since collecting the first set of data, we replaced the sand in half of the space with pine shavings and are filming for several more weeks. At the end of this study, we will compare the two time periods and see if the giraffes have changed their overnight habits. Based on their own actions and how they utilize the space, we will be able to make a more informed decision about their substrate. This has made my inner nerd immensely happy and makes me feel great giving our animals a say in how we take care of them.

Bridget S.
Keeper III, Mammals – Hoofstock

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