An Animal's Neighborhood

Zenda Lion - Whirl Tiger at Brookfield Zoo

While Amur tiger, Whirl, and African lion, Zenda, would not be found on the same continent in the wild, they are both residents of Big Cats walkway at Brookfield Zoo. Although zoos are constrained in terms of where they house particular species, we strive to provide the best possible living environment for each animal. Our Animal Welfare Research team conducts behavioral and physiological studies to help inform the housing decisions that we make for individual animals.

An Animal's Neighborhood

Have you ever had an obnoxiously loud neighbor? Do you live near family members? Have you ever become close friends with your next-door neighbor? Brookfield Zoo's animals often find themselves in the same situations as humans do when it comes to housing.

Brookfield Zoo, like all other zoos, is comprised of many unique neighborhoods. For instance, you have probably taken a stroll down Big Cats walkway—home to lions and tigers and bears! Oh my, you might say, those animals would never cross paths in the wild! Similarly, sometimes individuals of the SAME species live in adjacent enclosures despite the fact that they would rarely interact in nature (e.g. black rhinos). There are also cases in which members of a social species must be housed alone. These situations arise because zoos are constrained by factors such as the design of existing enclosures, safety concerns and health considerations.

Social Cats

Zenda and Isis lions at Brookfield Zoo

Our staff combines natural history information with our knowledge of each animal's personality, previous experiences and preferences. For example, research on wild lions shows us that this species is the most social of the big cats. Just as importantly, observations of our male African lion Zenda confirm that he enjoys the company of our lioness Isis.

Despite these limitations, Brookfield Zoo strives to provide the best possible living environment for each animal. Recently, our Animal Welfare Research team initiated a thorough examination of how both solitary and social animals are impacted by living next to members of the same species (i.e. conspecifics).

The first step is to attempt to view the world from the animal's perspective and to consider natural history information. Which senses are most relevant to the species? In the wild, how often are individuals of a particular sex in visual, auditory, chemical or tactile contact with conspecific males and females? Does the answer to this question vary depending on the season? After addressing these questions, zoo researchers can design appropriate studies for the species of interest—or even for particular individuals—to understand the impact of conspecific neighbors.

On the Shy Side

In the wild, okapi live as solitary animals. Therefore, it was not a surprise when we discovered that Augusta fared better when a visual barrier was erected so that she was unable to view neighboring males. Aside from exhibiting a decrease in head-rolling (an abnormal, repetitive behavior), keepers reported an increase in positive behaviors and an improvement in overall welfare.

One way to gain insight into how neighbors influence welfare, both positively and negatively, is to collaborate with other zoos to conduct surveys and look for patterns. For example, are females of a given species more likely to perform certain behaviors when given visual (or tactile) access to conspecific males? Are they more likely to reproduce when they have fewer female neighbors? The results of these studies allow us to provide recommendations for the species of interest.

Of course, it is important to remember that each animal, and its neighbor, has a unique personality, history and even preferences. Therefore, it is helpful to collect behavioral and physiological data on individual animals whenever possible. Furthermore, we can attempt to improve the animal's welfare by manipulating aspects of its environment or daily routine. For example, there is evidence that some social species, like horses and parrots, fare better when they are given visual access to neighbors, while visual barriers may be beneficial for a solitary species that rarely encounters conspecifics in the wild. For instance, our adult female okapi, Augusta, exhibited a decrease in head-rolling behavior (an abnormal, repetitive behavior) after we constructed a visual barrier to block her view of males in neighboring stalls. Our keepers also completed a questionnaire and reported a decrease in other negative behaviors (e.g. pacing), an increase in positive behaviors (e.g. interest in the environment) and an improvement in overall welfare. Zoos can also use naturalistic white noise (e.g. rain/waterfall sounds) to drown out a neighbor's vocalizations or "biological odors" (e.g. fragrant plants) to mask scents. Finally, when it is in the best interest of both animals, zoos can provide opportunities for neighbors to interact through small windows or even spend time in the same enclosure.

So, the next time your neighbor is making a ruckus or, if you're lucky, he invites you over to his backyard for a cookout, think of all of the neighborhoods at Brookfield Zoo!

-Jessica Whitham, Ph.D.
Animal Welfare Biologist

Posted: 9/11/2017 12:41:02 PM by Bryan Todd Oakley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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