In 2000, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums established the Animal Welfare Committee (AWC). Over more than two decades, the committee has become a go-to resource to share evidence-based insights that could improve the wellbeing of animals. Recently, the AZA board of directors approved the 2021-2023 Animal Welfare Committee strategic plan, which continues to advance the science and practice of animal welfare in AZA facilities, and educate the public about the evidence-based welfare efforts taking place in zoos and aquariums.
“In a nutshell, we want to improve the lives of our animals, and we also want to be known for it in the public space,” said Sharon Joseph, AWC’s incoming chair employed by the Birmingham Zoo.
Throughout the committee’s history, its leaders, members, and advisors have contributed research that has led to new understandings about animal care and welfare and shaped consistent standards of care across AZA facilities.
“The Animal Welfare Committee has been influential in encouraging zoos to take a more scientific approach to the care, management, and welfare of all animals in AZA zoos and aquariums,” said Joseph. “Not just those that are more recognizable and charismatic but also those that have been lesser studied, such as fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.”
As AZA members continue their research and outreach to improve animal care, we talked to AWC leaders to glean a better understanding about where they’ve come from and where they’re headed in the science around animal welfare.
One of the early accomplishments of the Animal Welfare Committee involved a straightforward but necessary step: defining the meaning of animal welfare in order to guide member facilities, said Beth Posta, the outgoing chair of AWC and curator of behavioral husbandry at Toledo Zoo and Aquarium in Toledo, Ohio. The agreed-upon definition, which is posted on AWC’s web page, is this: “Animal Welfare refers to an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional states over a period of time, and is measured on a continuum from good to poor.”
Understanding and measuring the welfare of each animal is, of course, complicated. To help members, AWC works to disseminate the latest research and best animal practices. The committee has also worked to make AZA accreditation standards more rigorous.
“The standards over the years have improved to where animal welfare is really on the forefront of animal care,” said Posta.
Some examples of those standards include requirements such as managing an animal enrichment program and employing staff to oversee that program; and ensuring that member facilities include a process for assessing the welfare of the animals in their collections. In addition, the committee played a key role in developing an ambassador animal policy for the entire Association to ensure that ambassador animals receive the same standard of care as other animals.
AWC also worked with the Accreditation Commission to develop a standard (standard 1.5.8), requiring AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to implement a process for reporting and addressing welfare-related concerns voiced by staff, visitors, or anyone else. Further, the committee was instrumental in developing position statements regarding keeping wild animals as pets and the use of wild animals in entertainment. The committee successfully lobbied to make animal welfare projects added as a funding category for the AZA Conservation Grants Fund; and it oversees the Animal Care Manual process, which outlines rigorous standards for the care and management of collection species. Through it all, the committee works to make sure that the animal’s best interests are always top of mind, said Posta.
Over the years, she adds, the understanding of animal welfare has evolved, and it will continue to do so as researchers learn more. Perhaps the most important aspect of AWC, she said, is its role in connecting members and sharing information.
“One of the things I love most about being a part of AZA is the collaboration among over 240 organizations to make sure that we’re doing the best for our animals,” said Posta. “We’re doing it together, we’re sharing this information and we’re not holding back. It is one of the most fulfilling parts of my career.”
The recently approved strategic plan for AWC has the following goals:
To train members on the latest science-based insights around animal welfare, Dr. Lance Miller set out to create a welfare-centered course in 2015, with the help of colleagues. Miller, who is now vice president of conservation science and animal welfare research at Chicago Zoological Society—Brookfield Zoo, was, at the time, chair of AWC (today he’s an advisor), and the course was created through a collaboration with a number of other zoos, including San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif., and Toledo Zoo and Aquarium.
The week-long, hands-on class Animal Welfare: Evidence-based Management launched in 2016 and takes place at Chicago Zoological Society—Brookfield Zoo every spring (in 2020 and 2021 the program was placed on hold because of the pandemic, and the plan for 2022 is undetermined).
“The course is designed to get people to use science to drive animal management decisions,” said Miller, who is a course instructor and administrator.
From its earliest days, the course has been so popular that it reliably has a waitlist. It covers topics such as AZA accreditation, stereotypic animal behavior, acknowledging human bias, and how to accurately and reliably collect behavioral data.
Participants go into the Zoo and collect behavioral data using an app called ZooMonitor, which was created at Lincoln Park Zoo and is free to AZA-accredited facilities to download. By inputting observations into the app over time, such as how an animal is using its habitat, and whether it’s eating, walking, interacting, or sleeping, they build a baseline to analyze and understand potential behavioral changes that may indicate changes in welfare.
Miller said one of the most gratifying parts of teaching the course is hearing about how it impacts attendees.
“It’s really nice when people go back to their facilities and they make changes based on what they’ve learned, and they actually see the welfare of their animals improve,” said Miller. “We do get success stories like that, which is really amazing.”
Over the last couple of decades, researchers at AZA facilities have consistently contributed to the science behind animal welfare. Through their studies, they’ve learned that caretakers with positive attitudes can lead to better welfare for the animals; they’ve established husbandry best practices; they’ve helped improve species longevity; they’ve studied the impact of exhibit design on animal welfare and the impact on animals of allowing choice and control; they were involved in a landmark elephant study that added greatly to the body of knowledge about the behavior, physiology, and management best practices of these animals.
Dr. Katherine Cronin, who is an incoming vice chair of AWC and director of the animal welfare science program at Lincoln Park Zoo, said the key to animal welfare work is “asking” the animals questions and taking their responses to heart.
“We need to figure out how to ask the animals how they’re feeling, and ask the animals what they want,” she said. “There’s some debate over this, but I think one of the most important things for welfare is that the animals feel good.”
Recently, Cronin “asked” the goats at Lincoln Park Zoo some questions to understand how visitors impact their welfare. The goats are ambassador animals in an interactive area called Farm-in-the-Zoo, and guests can groom them with brushes. Cronin wanted to know if the goats liked this activity, or if they retreated from it. So she observed them and found that they did, indeed, seem to enjoy the grooming, since they were drawn to the visitors, with one caveat: when people brushed their fur backwards, against the grain, they were sometimes met with a head toss, indicating displeasure.
“The goats’ behavior showed us that they were less comfortable when people groomed them improperly,” said Cronin. Now, she and her team can use that insight to create instructional messaging. “We can share with people, ‘The goats have spoken, and this is how they prefer to be groomed,” she said.
In other recent studies, Cronin and her team used ZooMonitor to study the ways animals such as lions, box turtles, American toads, and takins use their habitats, so that the Zoo can incorporate those insights into improved habitat designs. She said that as she learns more, she’s eager to share it far and wide—at AZA conferences, in AZA publications, and in scientific journals—knowing that lessons learned at one facility can go on to impact animal welfare at others.
“We know it’s completely impractical to think that everybody could come to these answers on their own,” said Cronin. “When scientists get the information out there, it amplifies the value of the research.”
That research is what AWC continues to build upon in its most recent strategic plan and beyond, as it works to make resources and tools available to member organizations to support them in assessing—and improving—animal welfare.
“We want everyone in all of our member institutions to be approaching animal care and welfare and management in a consistent fashion, based on scientific knowledge,” said Joseph.
Posta adds that the mission to improve animal care and welfare will continue to evolve, along with the AWC.
“This is going to be a living process. It’s going to be a work in progress for many, many years,” she said. “As we learn more, we’ll put that knowledge to work to ensure that animals in our care experience good welfare.”
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.