Blog: Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

Monitoring the Welfare of Individual Animals


Each day, our keepers spend several hours observing and interacting with the dolphins. As a result, they often are able to detect subtle shifts in welfare status. The keepers monitor welfare indicators such as Activity, Appetite and Body Condition.

I’m Dr. Jessica Whitham and I have a question for you: What do a grumbling gorilla, somersaulting aardvark, bright-eyed macaw, porpoising penguin and curious dolphin have in common? Well, if you ask Brookfield Zoo’s animal care staff, they will tell you that these individuals are exhibiting signs of good - or even great - welfare. In fact, one of our tools for monitoring welfare involves relying on our zookeepers to serve as the “voices” for the animals under our care. 
Our Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare is leading the zoo community in efforts to develop tools for enhancing quality of life. In 2013, we launched WelfareTrak®, an online system that tracks zookeepers’ assessments of animal welfare. Zoo professionals from across the country have tested WelfareTrak® and given their stamps of approval.


When a dolphin plays – either with other dolphins or objects – it may be indicative of good or even great welfare. Keepers use the WelfareTrak® system to rate the dolphins on the item “Playful” - as well as 12 other items - on a weekly basis.

So how does WelfareTrak® work? This user-friendly tool allows zookeepers to complete weekly surveys for individual animals. Each species has a unique survey – created by an international panel of experts - with items that reflect physical, mental and emotional well-being (e.g. Coat Condition, Attitude and Activity). Zookeepers can also document events believed to impact welfare scores. The system then creates reports that “flag” potential changes in welfare status. These reports help us catch any emerging welfare issues and determine whether our interventions for improving welfare are successful. We can even figure out whether individuals prefer certain enclosures, events or enrichment items. By focusing on each animal’s needs and preferences, we are pushing the envelope and striving for excellent welfare for all members of a species.

Dolphins are very social animals. The dolphin WelfareTrak® survey includes the item “Social Behavior” which helps the keepers monitor interactions within the group. 

Our Animal Programs department is currently using WelfareTrak® to monitor our dolphins. Each week, our Seven Seas keepers login to the system to complete welfare surveys for our eight dolphins: Allie, Allison, Magic, Maxine, Merlin, Noelani, Spree and Tapeko. It only takes about two minutes to fill out our 13-item dolphin survey, which includes welfare indicators such as Appetite, Social Behavior and Playful. The keepers also record any major events in the dolphins’ lives, such as births and the introduction of a new animal. By reviewing reports on a monthly basis, the dolphin team – led by Curator of Marine Mammals, Rita Stacey – is able to track the welfare of each dolphin over time. WelfareTrak® lets us know if we are making the best decisions for each and every individual. It’s not enough for our dolphins to do well… we want them to thrive.

Each week, the keepers login to the WelfareTrak® system to rate the dolphins on 13 items that reflect physical, mental and emotional well-being. It only takes 2-3 minutes to complete each survey. 

Today, WelfareTrak® is being employed by zoos in the U.S. and abroad to monitor nearly 20 species of mammals, birds and reptiles. The feedback from our users has been overwhelmingly positive. We are even leading a study that involves partnering with 16 AZA-accredited zoos to assess and improve chimpanzee welfare. In the future, WelfareTrak® could be used to monitor animals in wildlife sanctuaries, laboratories and conservation centers. Our Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare has the potential to enhance the lives of animals around the world!
Dr. Jessica Whitham
Animal Welfare Biologist


Posted: 8/9/2016 1:28:29 PM by

Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

Read the latest exciting stories about how our experts are advancing the science of “animal-directed” care through innovative programs at Brookfield Zoo and global field efforts.


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