Blog: Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

WelfareTrak® for Chimps

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The okapi, red tailed hawk and black rhino are three animals at Brookfield Zoo who are participating in WelfareTrak® to ensure our animals have the best quality of life possible.

Hi, I’m Dr. Katie Hall, and I’m part of a special project here at Brookfield Zoo which uses technology to enhance the lives of the animals in our care. In addition to using bio-logging devices, scientists at the Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare have developed an online survey called WelfareTrak® to help monitor and make sure that every animal is thriving. The great thing about WelfareTrak® is that it can be used anywhere! In fact, WelfareTrak® is currently being used with 19 different species at zoos, aquaria, and conservation centers...from Atlanta to New Zealand. 
 
Welfare monitoring can be approached in two different ways. The AZA recommends a resource-based approach, in which zoos must provide the animals a certain standard of living (for example, space in their exhibit, a healthy diet, and so on). Brookfield Zoo is striving to go above and beyond this model by using an outcome-based approach, in which we measure how well the animals are thriving in the environment we provide them. 
 
To do this, we give animal care staff an opportunity to fill out weekly WelfareTrak® surveys that measure various metrics of wellbeing, including exhibiting a healthy appetite, calm behavior, and good physical condition. The software will “flag” changes in welfare status, so animal care staff can proactively plan interventions to maintain positive welfare scores for their animals by, for example, providing enrichment.
 
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Chimpanzees, like humans, use tools to solve problems. We create enrichment for them that stimulates natural behaviour. Here, they are using modified stick tools to dip for honey, similar to how they would “fish” for termites in the wild. Photo courtsey of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Though we don’t house chimpanzees at Brookfield, there is great need to monitor their welfare, because chimpanzees often have unique and complicated rearing histories, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. In order to address this need, we have partnered with 17 AZA-accredited zoos in the US to tackle the challenge of assessing and improving the welfare of chimpanzees in human care. WelfareTrak® is ideal for monitoring chimpanzees, because the system is designed to highlight the needs, preferences and perspectives of each individual in a population.

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What are signs of excellent welfare in chimps?  Here, a bright-eyed chimp appears to have a good body condition: she is not overweight, and has healthy skin and hair. Additionally, she has a calm, relaxed demeanour. Photo courtsey of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Scientists at Brookfield Zoo have developed a welfare survey for chimpanzees by consulting with the world’s leading experts on chimpanzee behavior. In order to scientifically validate that the responses from the animal care staff are true (e.g. “Chuckles the Chimpanzee was extremely active this week”), we are comparing the survey results with 30-minute video observations collected three times a week, as well as fecal samples collected daily for hormonal analysis. We can then look at the video of Chuckles from that week and perhaps see that there was new enrichment; we can also look into the hormonal data and see that there were low levels of cortisol, a stress related hormone, during that time.

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By using a holistic instrument, WelfareTrak®, we will be able to proactively intervene to enhance welfare, and assess the success of the interventions. Photo courtsey of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Over the course of the next nine months, chimpanzee care staff around the US will be busy collecting data on our behalf for this study. Once we have validated that the survey actually reflects the qualitative judgments of the animal care staff, and that it also helps evaluate whether interventions to improve welfare are successful, we will make the survey available to any caretakers for chimpanzees that want to use it: the tool can aid chimpanzees found in all types of professionally managed settings, including those housed in sanctuaries and conservation centers. Ultimately, we anticipate that WelfareTrak® will foster an industry-wide shift in welfare assessment, placing the focus on individual outcomes.

Dr. Katie Hall
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Posted: 5/10/2016 12:55:31 PM by


Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

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