Determining zoo welfare can be tricky, and everyone also thinks differently about it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing! By looking at the animals and their living conditions, you can decide if you want to come back to this zoo again, or if you want to recommend it to others.
I have always felt unsure about zoos. In some ways, I see their importance when it comes to helping endangered animals, but they infuriate me by not looking after the animals properly, and many animals not needing to be captive at all.
The reason why I am sharing this guide to determining zoo welfare is because many people go ‘aww’ when they see a behaviour that’s actually bad. I want to help people know what’s good and what is bad so maybe then we can make a change.
Since I have done four years of animal studies, I have done a LOT on zoo welfare. I have created welfare assessments and written scientific reports about them. However, don’t worry! In this guide, I will try my hardest not to use any jargon, and you won’t need to do any science.
The 5 Welfare Needs for Determining Zoo Welfare
The 5 Freedoms, or Needs are written in a piece of UK legislation called the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The point of this act is to protect all animals that are under human care, from pets to zoos, and ensure they are well looked after.
I mention this because this is what I think about whenever I am looking at an enclosure. If you have any questions then leave them in the comment box and I’ll be happy to answer.
Let’s skip to the part where you’re watching an animal and you want to see if it’s being looked after properly.
Is there space to exercise?
Exercise is just as important to animals as is it to us. In fact, it is more important because they don’t have the opportunity to walk as much as they would do naturally.
I once saw a lion on one side of a national park and then a couple of hours later it was on the other side. It made me realise just how much these animals travel. Polar bears, for example, travel 20 miles a day which is impossible in captivity and can cause many problems.
Is there space to perform natural behaviours?
This is one of the 5 needs that I mentioned earlier which shows how important it is.
Natural behaviours will vary depending on the animal. Chinchillas bathe in sand, so is there the equipment and space for that to happen? Sometimes you might not know what natural behaviours animals perform, so don’t stress too much if you got to an nyala and know nothing about that specific animal, you can still use common sense to answer the non-specific questions.
Can the animal get away from people?
Humans can be very stressful for captive animals. Especially when children are banging on the glass (where I shamelessly glare at the parents until they get the child to stop). That’s why it is important that animals can get rest away from the public.
Can the animal get away from other animals?
You don’t always want to be around your family and friends, and neither do animals. So be sure to decide if there is enough space for animals to be separated.
This is even more important for sick, elderly and pregnant individuals as they can become targets.
Does the water look clean?
This is pretty simple, no one prefers dirty water? Most animals prefer running water because that signifies that it’s clean so give bonus points if the enclosure has running water.
Is the enclosure clean? Is there poo everywhere?
Usually, enclosures are cleaned once a day, sometimes twice so a little bit of poo is to be expected. However, having loads of it is a sign that they are not being cleaned regularly enough which is bad.
A build up of poo can lead to diseases which goes against two of the 5 needs: the need for a suitable enclosure and the need to be free from suffering and disease.
Is there enrichment for the animals?
You might not know what enrichment is so let me explain it. It’s basically an activity or piece of equipment the animal can use so they don’t get bored. It provides mental stimulation which is healthy. You can check out this post which explains it well.
Enrichment can be in the form of a ball that an elephant may play with, or unwrapping food from packaging which lemurs love to do. You also want to ensure there is enough enrichment for all of the animals.
Are there two barriers between the public and the animal?
Not every country has implemented this law but I think it’s a very good one, especially since what happened with Harambe (and that’s just one example).
Basically, there needs to be two forms of barriers between the public and the animals. This could be a fence and a moat, or a fence and a ditch. It could even be a fence, gap and another fence. This protects the public from accidentally falling into the enclosure and reduces the likelihood of animals getting out.
Are the furnishings clean and secure?
Furnishings are like the wooden platforms you see tigers sleeping on, or monkeys jumping across. It is important these are secure because they need to hold the weight of the animal, or animals and if they were to break it would cause injuries.
You also want to check they are clean because some materials can harbour diseases.
Is there bedding for the animal to sleep on?
Bedding for an animal can range from newspaper clippings to hay. Different types of bedding has pros and cons, so it can become a debate when asking if it’s the right type. Instead, ask if there is enough of it and if it is clean.
Are the animals eating?
If you have pets, you know that them going off their food is a sign something is wrong. The same goes for zoo animals, but it could mean either they are sick or the food they have been given isn’t right for them.
This point is mainly for herbivorous animals, or animals that eat through most of the day because predators usually get one meal a day, sometimes every two days.
Are the animals playing with the enrichment?
As mentioned previously, enrichment is important is stimulating the animals. The last point was asking if there was any available, but this is asking if the animals are using it.
Once again, if they aren’t using it then it could indicate that it’s the wrong type of enrichment for them.
Are there any stereotypical behaviours?
Stereotypical behaviours are the ones that people ‘aww’ at without realising that it’s actually bad.
A stereotypical behaviour is something like a lion pacing (in the exact same place for a few minutes or longer), a giraffe licking a wall, an elephant swaying their head or feet. You can see an example in this video here.
Animals will do these behaviours when they feel very stressed as it calms them. It’s like people smoking; it’s bad for them but they do it because it reduces their stress temporarily.
Are the animals being social with other animals?
A big part of determining zoo welfare is watching how individuals socialise with others. It can say a lot about the hierarchy in that enclosure, and the ones at the bottom of the pecking order tend to suffer more.
Are the animals clean?
Look at the animal’s hair, fur or coat. Animals tend to clean themselves, or clean each other, so if one is particularly dirty then that is cause for concern. It means that are not performing their natural behaviour which indicates bad welfare.
Do they have any patches of hair or fur missing?
I mentioned stereotypical behaviour earlier, and some animals (apes in particular) perform self-mutilation. This involves pulling their own hair out and biting themselves, which is bad physically and mentally.
There are other reasons why animals may be missing hair though, such as operations or conflict with other individuals but these also indicate that something is wrong.
Are the animals aggressive to each other?
Just like how you don’t get along with all of your family members, not all animals get along in their groups. The difference between wild and captive is that the captive ones cannot move into a different group and this can cause conflict.
Sometimes aggression is to be expected, such as around meal times. But too much aggression shows that the groups are not working and an intervention is needed.
Is one animal isolated from the group?
Leading on from the previous question, a dysfunctional group can also lead to one individual being pushed to the side. Not only is this bad for their mental health, but it usually means they aren’t getting much access to food.
Do the animals look a healthy weight?
Underweight animals could mean a number of things. It could the food they’re given is not suitable for them, or it’s not enough. If it’s just one animal that looks underweight then it could be because they’re isolated from the group, or that they are unwell.
Overweight animals is also a form of bad welfare. Being overweight leads to health problems which causes pain and suffering, and therefore against one of the five needs. It also means their diet isn’t suitable which goes against another need.
Are there any injuries on the animals?
Injury typically is a result of conflict, but sometimes it can be because the enclosure isn’t safe enough. A fixture may be too high for an animal to safely climb off, or it couldn’t hold the weight of the animals.
No matter the cause, it is important to see if the injury is healing and if any special precautions are being put in place to prevent another injury.
Do they have the right food?
This question does require some knowledge of the animals in question, so don’t stress if you can’t answer it. If you want to find out, then google the food in their natural habitat and compare the dietary fulfilment of what they’re being fed in the zoo.
Do they have enough food?
Captive animals don’t use as much energy as their wild counterparts so they won’t eat as much in comparison. It’s important to keep that in mind when answering this question.
Is the food clean?
Sometimes this can be a bit difficult to answer when you’re looking from the outside. However, maybe you can answer ‘is there old food left behind’ because this shows the last time they cleaned the enclosure.
Dirty and tainted food can lead to disease and parasites which is why this question is asked, even if it can be hard to answer.
Are there different types of food?
Imagine you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life? That would be so boring, and make you frustrated. That’s why it’s good to see if there is a variety of food in the enclosure. Ungulates like nyalas should have a variety with grass, hay, pellets and vegetables; primates and apes eat lots more fruit and vegetables.
Carnivores are the exception to this question as they only eat meat. However, how is the food given to them? Do they have to work to get it by reaching up a pole or digging for it?
Is the food scattered around the enclosure?
Giving animals creative ways of finding their food is a great way of stimulating them. It gets them physically active, and they get a reward for it. Have a look around the enclosure to see where and how the food is being given to them.
That is the entire guide to determining zoo welfare!
I hope you have found this helpful and will try it out! Be sure to leave comments down below if you have tried it at a certain zoo because I would love to know your results.