Monitoring and Improving Chimpanzee Welfare


It’s hard to believe that it has been over a year since our team first introduced you to our chimpanzee welfare study! This project involved collaborating with 16 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to monitor the welfare of 41 chimpanzees across North America. Specifically, we aimed to test whether animal care specialists can implement the WelfareTrak® system to regularly track, and ultimately improve, the welfare of individual chimpanzees. The WelfareTrak® web application allows animal care specialists to: 1) complete weekly surveys (designed by chimpanzee experts) that capture aspects of physical, mental and emotional well-being, and 2) review welfare reports that flag potential shifts in welfare status .


The project, coordinated by our Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Katie Hall, required a massive amount of data collection. Over a 9-month period, our partners helped us videotape 3 behavioral observations per week and collected daily fecal samples, resulting in over 4300 observation sessions and nearly 10,000 fecal samples! We then recruited a team of over 30 volunteers, docents and externs to code the behaviors in the videos and to process (weigh and extract) the fecal samples. Members of our Endocrinology Lab have nearly finished analyzing all fecal samples for glucocorticoid metabolites (FGMs; an indicator of physiological stress) and immunoglobulin-A) ! During the final 6 months of data collection, we also asked the animal care specialists at each zoo to complete weekly WelfareTrak® surveys for individual chimpanzees, resulting in two periods of data collection: the Baseline Period and WelfareTrak® Period.


How do we make sense of all of these data? Keep in mind that we want to examine two main questions: 1) do the behavioral and physiological data support the animal care specialists’ assessments of welfare, and 2) can we improve the welfare of individual chimpanzees by using the WelfareTrak® system? While we are still in the midst of data analysis, we already have some very promising results! So far, our findings suggest that the experts that we recruited for survey development identified appropriate indicators for monitoring the welfare of individual chimpanzees. We also have preliminary evidence that the process of completing surveys and reviewing reports is likely beneficial to the animals.

We still have hundreds of hours of work ahead of us! However, by the middle of 2018 we hope to have evidence that using WelfareTrak® improves the lives of individual chimpanzees. Eventually, we hope that this tool will be employed in a variety of settings, including zoos, sanctuaries and conservation centers. We also plan to expand our existing library of WelfareTrak® surveys, so that the system can be applied to a wide range of species to enhance the quality of life of zoo animals. Stay tuned for our final results!
Dr. Jessica Whitham – Animal Welfare Biologist
Dr. Katie Hall – Postdoctoral Researcher, Animal Welfare Research


Posted: 12/15/2017 4:15:12 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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