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Welfare Research Applied

Over this past year, some of our blog topics have discussed how we conduct research, how data can provide insight on the well-being of our animals, and how the management of our animals affects their welfare. In this final blog post of the year, we are going to present a case study that ties these topics together and presents a research study from beginning to end. This study focused on the introduction of a new animal into an already established habitat. 

Our bontebok, Casper, was introduced to the African Savanna habitat in October 2023 and shares the habitat with giraffes, zebras, and ostriches. While bonteboks are social animals and live in herds, Casper was to be housed by himself. Since we have previously discussed why managing animals in species-specific social groups is beneficial for their overall health and welfare, and considering that Casper is not in a typical social group, we had a few questions about Casper’s welfare. We wanted to know what Casper was doing while being alone and how he interacted with other species. We established our method for watching Casper and determined what behaviors we needed to observe that could help answer our questions. Some behaviors like standing and grazing tell us what Casper is doing throughout the day, while interspecies behaviors such as displace or moving together tell us how Casper is possibly interacting with his habitat mates. These interspecies interactions were labeled as neutral, affiliative, or agonistic, and were used in tandem with an aerial map of the habitat to note where these behaviors occurred.  

We observed Casper over a period of nine months, compiled and cleaned the data, and obtained results that gave us more insight into Casper’s interactions and his time budget. We found that Casper spent most of his time feeding, grazing, and moving, which indicates that he’s spending time doing what we’d expect him to do as a bontebok. We also found that he spent most of his time around areas where he could find food or rest in the shade. Just like their wild counterparts, all the species aggregated around food, water, and shelter/shade. There were numerous interspecies interactions, with Casper significantly interacting with Shinda the zebra more than other species. This could possibly be due to Shinda being closer in size to Casper than an ostrich or giraffe, or maybe because their diet is more similar. Most of their interactions were agonistic or neutral. It might not be surprising that there were less affiliative interactions, as animals have evolved species-specific ways to communicate, and zebra language probably isn’t the same as bontebok language. Shinda left Zoo Atlanta to join a different herd, but we found that once she moved, the frequency of agonistic behaviors significantly dropped overall. After Shinda, Casper interacted with Lennard, one of our giraffes, with Lennard initiating interactions more than Casper.  

Now with completed research and statistical results, we have answered our questions and have identified how we can possibly improve the care and management of Casper. Examples of solutions might be that we could add more areas to place food to reduce potential agonistic interactions, or acquire one or two more bonteboks that would allow Casper to have more intraspecies interactions. After any changes are made, we would then conduct the same study and determine if anything has changed in Casper’s behavior. If the changes reduce agonistic behaviors and increase affiliative behaviors, then we can conclude the study. If nothing significantly changes, we may enact additional changes or reevaluate the study.  

Research studies are essential to measuring how our animals are doing and continuously finding ways to improve their welfare in our care. Basic observational studies, such as this one, can tell us a lot about our animals even before we enact any big changes or carry out more extensive studies.  

Alexz Allen
Research Assistant

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl