The importance of professional development
Hello! As with all of my colleagues here, professional development is hugely important to me. I have been away from the Zoo for the past 2 weeks for two amazing opportunities! First, at the end of September I went to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Annual Conference. Zoo Atlanta is an accredited member of this professional organization whose job it is to make sure that our zoo holds itself to standards above and beyond those required by our government. To have animals at the Zoo we have to have a lot of permits and licenses that say we take good care of the animals. But to be accredited by AZA, we have to comply with parameters about animal care that far exceed the baseline expectations. For example, AZA requires that we allow any of their inspectors to inspect our zoo at any time, and routine inspections happen every five years. They check to make sure we’re taking care of the animals in the best possible way, the animals are happy and healthy, and that the staff has opportunities to continue learning about the animals in their care.
This year, the annual conference was in Seattle, Washington. Lucky for me because I got to visit my big brother while I was out west. A major focus of this year’s conference was animal well-being and how we can measure it. In other words, how do we know when the animals are happy, not just healthy? I learned about a lot of “behavioral markers” that indicate animal happiness. For example, field researchers know that lions sleep 20 hours a day, so we expect that our lions sleep about that much too! Another example is that elephants are known to be curious and use their trunks to investigate novel objects, so we expect that Tara and Kelly would be the same, and they do! We can also use bio-markers such as glucocorticoids. If an animal’s marker is at baseline, then the animal is feeling calm, cool and collected. Animal well-being is very important to us at Zoo Atlanta.
Those are just some very simple examples. I also had the chance to present at this conference in a session called “Animal Ambassador: Hot Topics.” That session focused on giving our ambassador animals a choice to participate in programs. For example, before we take a chinchilla to a school we ask that chinchilla to voluntarily get into the kennel. Because of its history of being in a kennel leading to going to a school program, we know that if the chinchilla goes into the kennel voluntarily, it is making a choice to go to that school program. If it chooses not to go into the kennel, we select a different animal for the program.
After my brain got filled with conference things, I headed to Denver, Colorado, where I got to take an AZA class called Managing Animal Enrichment and Training Programs. I also got to visit my big sister while I was in Denver. Enrichment and training are two very crucial elements of animal well-being. Enrichment, as you might already know, is something we add to the animals’ environments to encourage natural behaviors. For example, we might put some sheep wool into the tiger habitat to encourage hunting and stalking behaviors, or we might burry the ground hornbills’ food in a giant leaf pile to encourage foraging. Training, again, as you might know, is when we give the animals an opportunity to participate in their own care. For example, all of the gorillas are trained to press their shoulders against the mesh of their indoor area to receive an injection so that we can give them annual vaccines in a stress-free way. Here at Zoo Atlanta, we have a behavioral management committee that oversees our enrichment and training programs, and I am the chair of that committee. It is our responsibility to make sure that all animals in the Zoo are getting enrichment and training on a schedule that is aligned with their needs. For example, elephants get training sessions and enrichment multiple times a day, every single day, while some animals, like our rose-hair tarantula, gets training more like two times a week and gets enrichment one to two times a week as well. I learned a lot about how our program here at Zoo Atlanta is great, but like everything, it can always get better! I can’t wait to bring what I learned to the committee!
Assistant Curator, Ambassador Animals