Behavioral Research at Brookfield Zoo

Behavioral Research Program

The Chicago Zoological Society’s Behavioral Research Program answers essential questions about optimal animal care and well-being, and helps extend our understanding of animals’ biology and behavior.
 
Under the guidance of Dr. Jason Watters, the program examines zoo-animal behavior in comparison with theory and wild-animal behavior. Beginning as a small program focusing on the animals at Brookfield Zoo, it has grown exponentially in recent years, utilizing advances in technology to greatly enlarge the quantity of subjects it studies.
 
Areas of research include how animals’ personalities affect their reactions to different circumstances; the role of animal behavior in promoting learning outcomes in zoo guests; and how animals are affected by different types of environmental enrichment.
 
Groundbreaking Technology
Zoological institutions are valuable resources for the study of animal behavior. A significant drawback, however, is the limited number of animal subjects per species at a single institution. Pooling data from across institutions helps increase sample sizes and results in findings that are more representative of species behavior.

Members of CZS’s Behavioral Research Program developed the Colonel Stanley R. McNeil Ethotrak Program. This software promotes standardized behavioral monitoring of animals at multiple institutions. The program enables the collection of data on large sample sizes of threatened and endangered species, a difficult feat given the rarity of many of these animals.

Recently, our EthoTrak software helped us complete the largest study ever performed on okapi. There are only ninety individuals of this rare species resident in U.S. zoological institutions, and few zoos hold more than two or three animals. Using Ethotrak technology and protocols, however, CZS researchers and collaborators were able to monitor more than fifty okapi. Our findings will be used to promote optimal well-being for this little known species.
 
A Tradition of Research Excellence
Our investment in behavioral research dates back to the 1956 appointment of CZS President Emeritus Dr. George Rabb. Through his early work, the Zoo grew to understand the value of baseline behavioral monitoring in directing husbandry decisions. Behavioral research was also found to offer insight into the previously poorly understood biology of many species.