Though data collection has finished for the chimpanzee welfare study, our work is nowhere near over. During the past nine months, my volunteers and I have busily weighed over 3500 fecal samples and coded over 1700 videos, and we are about 40% through the total process. It will be a challenge to finish the remaining 60% by summer time, but knowing the results of the study is a worthwhile goal.
How does all of the data come together? We need to compare the behavioral evidence we gather from the videos, and the physiological data from the fecal samples, with the animal care specialists’ weekly ratings on the WelfareTrak® survey. Though I can’t yet speak definitively on the outcome, we can look at a case study to see whether the survey is working. We want to know two things: 1) that the behavioral and physiological evidence support the animal care specialists’ weekly survey reports, and 2) that using WelfareTrak® helps to improve the welfare of individual animals.
Let’s look at a case study together. At one of our participating institutions, there is one chimpanzee who's WelfareTrak® scores were lower during the month of June for the categories: physical condition, social behavior, use of space, and performs self-directed behaviors. The animal care specialists all agreed that the subject scored lower for these categories. For example, if a subject’s physical condition declined, it would not be surprising to find that they did not use all of the climbing space available; or, if the subject became withdrawn, it makes sense that lower levels of social behavior, and more self-directed behavior, would be observed. From the behavior observed in the videos during this month, we can conclude that the behavioral evidence supports the weekly survey scores from the animal care staff.
In addition to changes in behavior, we also noticed the subject’s corticosterone values went from an average of 57 ng/g to 511 ng/g. The increase in adrenal activity corresponds well with the decline in survey scores.
The behavioral and physiological evidence does seem to support the animal care specialists’ weekly survey scores in this case. Which brings us to the second question: how can we use WelfareTrak® to improve the welfare of individual animals? If we know that scores are declining, we must intervene to counteract that. All participating institutions have been asked to form their own workgroup, consisting of different perspectives on the chimpanzees’ welfare, for example, care specialists, veterinarians, researchers, curators, and so on. It is our hope that using WelfareTrak®, and meeting to discuss scores, will help caregivers pay attention to behavioral cues and subtle changes, proactively create interventions, and importantly, to discuss the success of the interventions.
In this particular case study, the individual’s survey scores began to improve in the fourth week of June, and this corresponded with a return to normal levels in corticosterone values (65 ng/g) and a return to normal behavior as observed on the videos. Certainly the care specialists were highly aware that something wasn’t right, and the intervention they made on behalf of the subject was successful. Case studies such as this provide evidence that using WelfareTrak® can help to improve the lives of individual chimpanzees.
Ultimately, we hope that this tool can aid chimpanzees in all types of managed settings, including those housed in zoos, sanctuaries, and conservation centers.