I was fortunate enough to be able to attend AZA’s (Association of Zoo’s & Aquarium’s – America) Animal Welfare: Evidence Based Management professional course earlier this year. I thought you all might be interested in hearing my top 5 take-aways from it.
1). AZA has assembled a dream-team of instructors. Every single one of them is an amazing person. If you don’t know them, you should!
The course was hosted at the beautiful Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois; whose dedication to science-based animal wellness is inspiring. The instructor team consisted of some of the most passionate and empowering people I have ever met. Each one of them is pushing the zoological community forward in enormous ways. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from this group! They were:
- Lance Miller- Vice President of Conservation Science & Animal Welfare Research, Brookfield Zoo
- Greg Vicino- Curator of Applied Animal Welfare, San Diego Zoo
- (Together, Greg and Lance created the “Five Opportunities to Thrive” animal welfare model. Check out the podcast Ryan just did with Greg!)
- Don Janssen- Cooperate Director of Animal Health DVM (retired), San Diego Zoo Global
- (Don authored Upside-Down leadership: A Zoo Vet’s Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader)
- Jill Mellen- Education & Science Director (retired), Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- (Jill is one of the original masterminds behind the SPIDER enrichment framework)
- Sharon Joseph- Director of Animal Welfare & Research, Denver Zoo
- (Sharon has created a progressive animal wellness program at Denver zoo)
- Beth Posta- Curator of Behavioral Husbandry & Research, Toledo Zoo
- (Beth has been a mentor of mine for a long time, so it was great to see her again. I actually did one of my first internships with Beth’s department in 2012 which very much influenced my career path!!)
- As an added bonus… Tim Sullivan is the Curator of Behavioral Husbandry at Brookfield so you might even get to chat with him in between classes! Check out Ryan’s podcast with Tim;
2). The way we look at welfare has evolved a lot over time. (HINT: it even involves choice and control!!)
They emphasized that we have moved beyond the “The Five Freedoms” model of animal welfare, which advocated freedom from negative experiences. We now feel that the absence of negative experiences doesn’t necessarily mean an animal is thriving. AZA has combined WAZA’s, “Five Domains” model with the “Five Opportunities to Thrive” model (Miller and Vicino), to create their suggested animal welfare framework, shown below.
- Nutrition-a suitable, species-specific diet will be provided in a way that ensures full health and vigor, both behaviorally and physically.
- Environment– animals will experience an appropriate environment that encouraged opportunities to self-maintain and promotes ongoing comfort and safety.
- Health-animals will have opportunity to experience good physical health including access to preventative health care and rapid diagnosis, treatment of injury/disease to ensure ongoing robustness and vitality through all life stages.
- Behavior-quality spaces and appropriate social groupings provided that encourage species specific behaviors at natural frequencies and appropriate diversities while meeting the social and developmental needs of each individual in the collection.
- Choice and Control- animals have the opportunity for choice and control to seek out and achieve a positive welfare state while able to avoid suffering and distress.
- Affective/Mental State- conditions provided in which animals have opportunity to experience a predominance of positive emotional states and minimize negative survival related experiences and emotional states.
3). Welfare is everyone’s job.
Every single person that works at an animal care facility impacts animal welfare in some way. Even if you work in operations, horticulture, or guest service departments. Animal wellness programs are most successful when staff training occurs at every level and welfare is integrated into the institutions core values, so that employees understand how their role can impact welfare from day one.
4). It’s all about inputs and outputs.
Thinking about your animal welfare program in terms of inputs and outputs is a great way to start wrapping your brain around this multifaceted topic.
- Inputs are resource based. These are the things YOU do for the animals under your care. Think- training and enrichment programs, management strategies, nutrition, environment. All of our inputs can contribute to animal wellness either positively or negatively. Think of inputs as the ingredients for your animal wellness program.
- Outputs are animal based measures. These are how the animal is actually impacted. Activity level, body condition, fur/feather quality, and behavior are all examples of outputs. These things can be identified as indicators and used to monitor animal wellness over time.
5). Communication is key.
As animal care professionals, we are all deeply invested in the animals we take care of. Its highly likely that there are going to be conversations regarding welfare where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Dare I say that these might fall into the category of crucial conversations? My favorite part of the course focused on how to effectively navigate these types of conversations toward productive solutions.
When situations become emotionally charged, it can be easy to toss around phrases like “this is a welfare concern”. I mean, those words carry some serious baggage, right? Don’t do it though. Do your best not to unintentionally “weaponize welfare”. Like the great animal trainers you are, you’re probably asking “well then what do you want me to do instead?” Great question. First, take a deep breath …and then operationalize it of course!
To determine if there is actually some aspect of welfare that is compromised, turn your attention towards the animal-based measures (outputs). Focus communication on indicators that are relevant, measurable, observable. So, if your disagreement is on what to feed an animal, you might focus on measures like, weight, body condition, dental health, and activity budgets. If one of those measures falls outside of optimal levels, then changes to inputs like diet or diet presentation can be made and evaluated. As a community, we should strive to communicate professionally, based on data, with the goal of achieving optimal welfare for the animals under our care.
These five take-aways were just a tiny bit of the information that I took away from the course. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone that works in an animal care facility. But wait, there’s more! AZA’s Animal Welfare Committee has partnered with San Diego Zoo Global to put together a comprehensive FREE course that is available to anyone. So if you want more information, check out the links below:
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR – ATA member Kaitlyn Wiktor
Kaitlyn Wiktor grew up in Massachusetts & always wanted to become a zookeeper, volunteering at local zoos from a young age. She received a B.S in Wildlife Care and Education from Unity College, interning and seasonal zoo keeping in a variety of areas at Omaha Zoo during the summers (bird dept, desert dome, apes). After graduation Kaitlyn secured an internship in the Behavioral Husbandry Department at Toledo Zoo where she got to plan, implement, and evaluate enrichment, and collect behavioural data on their collection of polar bears. She also got to participate in training sessions with their harbor seals and grey seals. This is where her interest in behavior management was established.
At home Kaitlyn works hard to help her two fur-babies, Hazel and Sugar, to live their *best cat lives* with lots of enrichment, training, and kitty walks.