AboutZoos, Since 2008


New research to bet­ter under­stand and enhance Zoo ele­phant welfare

pub­lished 12 Sep­tem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 26 July 2014

A ground-​breaking study announced 10 Sep­tem­ber revealed that analysing the daily lives of zoo ele­phants – rang­ing from when and how they are fed to how they spend their time both at night and dur­ing the day – pro­vides new, sci­en­tif­i­cally based infor­ma­tion that zoos can use to improve the wel­fare of their ele­phants. “Using Sci­ence to Under­stand­ing Zoo Ele­phant Wel­fare” is the largest and most com­pre­hen­sive, multi-​institution study ever con­ducted to col­lect and assess data on the wel­fare of any species in North Amer­i­can zoos.

African elephant atlantaRep­re­sen­ta­tives of the 27-​member study team, which includes inde­pen­dent con­sul­tants, zoo pro­fes­sion­als and fac­ulty from three uni­ver­si­ties, pre­sented results from the three-​year, inde­pen­dent study on 10 Sep­tem­ber at the national Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums (AZA) annual meet­ing attended by zoo pro­fes­sion­als from through­out North Amer­ica. The study team mem­bers and dozens of research assis­tants from widely var­ied dis­ci­plines devel­oped quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures to assess ele­phant wel­fare indi­ca­tors. A sam­ple of the vol­umes of data col­lected included: 110,000 pages of med­ical records, 2,700 hours of video, 6,135 serum sam­ples, 7.8 mil­lion GPS data points and 6,571 fecal sam­ples col­lected from 40,000 pounds of ele­phant dung.

We are proud to have devel­oped a suc­cess­ful research model that can poten­tially be applied glob­ally to the assess­ment of zoo ani­mal wel­fare across species
Cheryl Mee­han, Ph.D., the study’s con­sult­ing project manager »

“Pre­vi­ous to this study, there had not been a large-​scale, sci­en­tific assess­ment of zoo ele­phant wel­fare in the North Amer­ica. Although ele­phant wel­fare has been a topic of pub­lic inter­est, the lack of avail­able data on this spe­cific pop­u­la­tion made it dif­fi­cult to dif­fer­en­ti­ate fact from opin­ion,” said Mee­han. “This study gives a broad look at the lives of zoo ele­phants, and the out­comes pro­vide both the science-​based infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary to inform con­ver­sa­tion as well as action­able items that zoos can use to con­tinue to enhance man­age­ment of elephants.”

The study team iden­ti­fied six wel­fare indi­ca­tors, includ­ing some per­ceived issues for zoo ele­phants such as body mass, behav­iour, and repro­duc­tion. It then con­sid­ered a wide range of man­age­ment fac­tors that can influ­ence an elephant’s wel­fare, such as hous­ing, exer­cise and social group­ings. The study took a novel approach in quan­ti­fy­ing these fac­tors from the per­spec­tive of each indi­vid­ual ele­phant, which allowed researchers to cap­ture the com­plex­ity and vari­abil­ity within the zoo pop­u­la­tion. Analysing data and iden­ti­fy­ing cor­re­la­tions allowed the team to deter­mine which fac­tors are most strongly asso­ci­ated with each wel­fare indicator.

At the meet­ing the researchers pre­sented the most sig­nif­i­cant study find­ings on wel­fare indi­ca­tors, including:

Foot and joint health:
A minority of zoo ele­phants (39%) reviewed in 2011 had reported foot prob­lems. The study found that the con­tin­u­a­tion of foot prob­lems from 2011 to 2012 as well as over­all joint health was asso­ci­ated with the amount of time spent on hard sur­faces (con­crete or stone). It was iden­ti­fied that incre­men­tal changes in time spent on hard sur­faces can have mea­sur­able impacts on joint health, such that 10% (2.4 hours) reduc­tion in time spent on con­crete or stone is cor­re­lated with a 63% reduc­tion in the like­li­hood of joint abnor­mal­i­ties.
Another cor­re­la­tion showed that as ele­phants advance in age, they are more prone to expe­ri­ence foot and joint prob­lems.

Body con­di­tion scores:
Researchers eval­u­ated 240 ele­phants for body con­di­tion using a phys­i­o­log­i­cally val­i­dated 15 scor­ing scale – with “3” being ideal, 4 and 5 indi­cat­ing over­weight, but 1 and 2 indi­cat­ing under­weight. “In the com­ing months, zoos will be pro­vided with posters of the body con­di­tion scor­ing sys­tem. This tool will help increase aware­ness of how ele­phants in ideal body con­di­tion should appear, and will allow ele­phant care staff to mea­sure progress toward improv­ing body con­di­tion when needed.” said Dr. Mee­han.
The study found a cor­re­la­tion between improved body con­di­tion and increas­ing an elephant’s time being exer­cised; and pro­vid­ing more fre­quent meals through­out the day; and hav­ing unpre­dictable tim­ing of the num­ber of feed­ings dur­ing the day.

By track­ing ele­phants wear­ing elephant-​size GPS anklets, the study found that ele­phants with higher walk­ing rates were also likely to have:
- softer sub­strates (grass, sand or rub­ber) to walk on dur­ing the night;
- an increased num­ber of social part­ners;
- enrich­ment pro­grams that are more struc­tured and mon­i­tored; and
- an oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence more avail­able space at night.

(when ele­phants lie down):
Asian ele­phants had higher rates of recum­bence than Africans. In both species, ele­phants that spent more time on softer sub­strates dur­ing the day and with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent social group­ings, and out­doors were likely to spend more time lying down.

The study found that ele­phants spent the largest part of their days and their nights eat­ing fol­lowed by rest­ing or stand­ing. It also found that a major­ity (approx­i­mately 23 of the pop­u­la­tion) exhib­ited some stereo­typic behav­iour, which is defined as unvary­ing and repet­i­tive behav­iours such as sway­ing or pac­ing. How­ever„ the team iden­ti­fied sev­eral fac­tors that are cor­re­lated with a decrease in the like­li­hood of stereo­typy. The find­ings pro­vide direc­tion for zoos that are actively try­ing to reduce the per­for­mance of these behav­iours by their ele­phants. For exam­ple lower rates of stereo­typy per­for­mance were more likely when ele­phants:
- expe­ri­enced more avail­able space for greater amounts of time;
- inter­acted more with ani­mal care staff;
- had choices between indoor and out­door areas over night;
- had strong pos­i­tive social bonds with other ele­phants, and
- spent more time with young ele­phants.

Ovar­ian cyclic­ity
(the reg­u­lar­ity of female repro­duc­tive cycles):
Zoo pro­fes­sion­als have long known that some female ele­phants of repro­duc­tive age in the zoo pop­u­la­tion do not cycle reg­u­larly. This study pro­vided new insights into this issue by iden­ti­fy­ing fac­tors that cor­re­late with cyclic­ity sta­tus and which can be addressed through changes in man­age­ment prac­tices. For Asian females, an increased like­li­hood of reg­u­lar cycling is asso­ci­ated with spend­ing more time with male ele­phants. African females are more likely to cycle reg­u­larly when they have more social expe­ri­ence, par­tic­i­pate in 14-​hours per week of staff-​led exer­cise, and when there are more fre­quent and diverse enrich­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. Those with higher than ideal body con­di­tion were less likely to have reg­u­lar cycles.

“The study pro­duced incred­i­ble data that, for the first time, pro­vides zoos with sci­en­tif­i­cally based assess­ments that iden­tify which aspects of ele­phant man­age­ment cor­re­late strongly with wel­fare indi­ca­tors,” said project team mem­ber Mike Keele, for­mer chair of the ele­phant TAG/​SSP and for­mer direc­tor of ele­phant habi­tats at Ore­gon Zoo. “There’s great value in link­ing sci­ence to zoos’ ele­phant man­age­ment prac­tices because it can be used daily to enhance the wel­fare of ele­phants in the care of zoo professionals.”

The study team praised the 70 AZA-​accredited zoos, zoo direc­tors, and zoo ele­phant care staff and vet­eri­nar­i­ans, who par­tic­i­pated in the research by pro­vid­ing videos, serum sam­ples, health exam­i­na­tion infor­ma­tion and other details about their ele­phants. Dr. Mee­han said that a zoo’s involve­ment in the vol­un­tary study demon­strates a com­mit­ment to improved under­stand­ing of ele­phant wel­fare and its rela­tion to man­age­ment and care.

“This study rep­re­sents a snap­shot in time of this pop­u­la­tion of ele­phants. It increases our under­stand­ing of zoo ele­phant wel­fare and pro­vides infor­ma­tion that will sup­port ele­phant pro­grams as they fur­ther develop their prac­tices. We see this project as a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment in fos­ter­ing part­ner­ships between sci­en­tists and zoo pro­fes­sion­als that share the com­mon goal of enhanc­ing the wel­fare of zoo ani­mals,” said Dr. Mee­han. “While we haven’t answered all of the ques­tions about ele­phant wel­fare, we are excited that the study can ben­e­fit zoos and their elephants.

Fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion, the study team plans to do addi­tional data analy­sis and expects to pub­lish the out­comes in peer-​reviewed, sci­en­tific jour­nals in the months ahead.

(Source: ele​phantwel​farestudy​.com news release via Sci­enceDaily, 10.09.2013)

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