The term ‘animal welfare’ can mean different things to different people.
Animal welfare, as a term, covers a range of states that an animal can find itself in. It is generally agreed that animal welfare is a continuum and refers to a state within an individual animal which reflects the sum of its sensations and emotions at a given point in time. Animal welfare can therefore be great, good, satisfactory, poor or extremely poor. An individual animal can have poor welfare in some aspect of its life and great welfare in another aspect of its life.
The wild nature of the animals in our care compels us to provide an environment and experiences that the animal’s biology has evolved to expect and to cope with. We understand that zoos cannot truly replicate the wild but, as far as possible, we can create an environment inspired by nature that provides for the animal's behavioural and physiological needs.
Life in a zoo, like life in the wild, places some restrictions on animals, regardless of how good the facilities and care. Many animals in the wild also have their movements restricted by territorial boundaries, and their ‘freedom’ is radically restricted by the daily battle to survive. Taronga’s wildlife experiences are evolving to maximise choice for animals in our care, for example, through providing complexity in animal spaces, including areas to retreat to, choice to participate in training and conditioning programs and animal led encounters.
Taronga promotes positive animal welfare for all animals in our care through a veterinary health care program, diets prepared by our zoo nutritionist, enrichment determined by our behavioural scientists, animal care provided by qualified zoo keepers and carefully designed animal spaces. All these combined ensure that the sum of an animal’s experiences is a positive one. There is great value in the repository of understanding of wild animals that lies within the province of good zoos such as Taronga.
As a leader in animal welfare we provide dignity and respect and the best care for our animals.
Monitoring and managing welfare of the zoo’s inhabitants
As a world-leader in wildlife management, Taronga is continuously monitoring the health and welfare of the animals in our care and within our conservation programs. This includes tackling the challenges of remotely monitoring the welfare of both wild and zoo-based animals when we can’t have eyes and ears on the ground. For instance, observing animal behaviour and conducting health checks on our animals is only part of the picture – new technologies are constantly being developed to help us identify potential welfare issues in real-time, especially for animals in remote locations, those living in larger groups, or those where immediate up-close assessment is not possible.
Taronga scientists have been collecting and analysing data of wild and zoo-based animals using field-based observation, video footage, drones, and citizen science. From these data we gain unique insights into both fine-scale movements of individuals, and broad behavioural states of the animals. This information is vital to understanding things like habitat preferences, migration and movement patterns, and ultimately the welfare state of the animal.
In the Field
In order to develop the tools we need to monitor animals and their welfare remotely, we first need to identify what normal patterns of behaviour look like. Using model species such as zoo-based herding animals and free-ranging wildlife, Taronga scientists have been collecting and analysing drone footage to identify an animal’s basic movement patterns. Targeted management using this technology can allow improvements in the design of enclosures or sanctuaries based on space-use and behaviour pattern analysis, and earlier interventions in cases of disease or injury.
Some of the information we can gain from drone footage allows us to develop metrics around activities like: time spent under shade, top speed when running around, and tendency to leave or join a group.
For wild animals, having detailed, round-the-clock information on animal behaviour patterns in conjunction with information on animal locations, means that we can identify key parts of habitat, such as favoured foraging grounds, which can then be targeted as a priority for conservation. Alternatively, we may pin-point areas that are associated with typical behavioural stress-responses, which in turn may allow us to determine the impacts of human activities on animals. Second, behaviour is often highly sensitive to changes in the environment. Building a picture of what represents a normal pattern of behaviour, using the approach described here, for any given individual or species allows us the potential to use animals as highly accurate, highly sensitive bio-indicators of environmental change. This brings a higher degree of accuracy than is currently achievable in our understanding of how animals are responding to anthropogenic change, and in turn facilitates effective policy and priority action for mitigating known and future threats.
In the Zoo
In the zoo we’re constantly observing and monitoring both the animals themselves and the environments they live in. This includes measuring things like sound levels, temperature fluctuations and visitor numbers. Understanding how animals perceive the environments they’re in is fundamental to designing and maintaining good zoos.
An example of a recent research project at Taronga Zoo involved examining the so-called ‘visitor effect’ on our animals, that is, how do our animals perceive zoo visitors?
We observed the interactions between four species of macropods (Red Kangaroo, Red-necked wallaby, Swamp Wallaby and Quokka) and visitors in a walkthrough exhibit, and found that unsurprisingly, as visitor numbers increased 3 out of the 4 macropod species spent more time ‘on the lookout’ keeping an eye on what the visitors were doing. Although this behaviour isn’t a negative one on its own, if animals spend too much time worrying about visitors, they’ll devote less time to essential behaviours such as rest or foraging. Interestingly, Quokkas paid less attention to visitors than wallabies and kangaroos when visitor numbers were high. These results highlight the need to monitor visitor numbers when interacting with animals, and where necessary, limit the amount of people going through walk through exhibits at a time. This research also showed that even when occupying the same space, both individual animals and different species can perceive their environment in different ways. Therefore, targeting management to both the individual and the species is really important for promoting excellent animal welfare. Visit mdpi.com to read more about another collaborative research study on Little Penguins behaviour in response to zoo visitors and habitat design.
Animal Welfare Symposium
With the arrival of a new decade comes the launch of Taronga's first Animal Welfare Symposium. We are delighted to invite you to attend Evolving Welfare Together. Come along to engage with world class leaders in animal welfare and ethics on the thought-provoking ideas that may shape our future with animals.