Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., implemented major changes in its approach to hoofstock management that improved animal welfare and resilience, expanded the Zoo’s ability to house and breed additional individuals and species, and enhanced the guest experience.
Historically, the Expedition Africa hoofstock were housed in one of three large yards. Scimitar-horned oryx and dromedary camels lived in a “train yard,” impala and Masai giraffe lived in a “giraffe veldt,” and white rhinoceroses and Grévy’s zebras lived in a “rhino yard.”
The train yard and giraffe veldt are directly connected to a large barn that housed the giraffe and rhinos overnight; and the rhino yard is directly connected to the giraffe veldt via gate and has direct access to a small barn that could house the zebras overnight.
“There was a set routine for many years, and it was mostly hands-off with minimal training,” said Lauren Hinson, general curator at the Zoo. “The animals knew exactly what to expect and when to expect it, and even a minor deviation from that could cause serious stress.”
With a major construction project looming in an adjacent space and the Zoo at carrying capacity for hoofstock, it became clear that a change was needed.
Increasing flexibility between the three existing spaces would address each problem, but, as is often the case when working with animals, such a task is easier said than done.
Curators and keepers implemented an intensive positive-reinforcement training program that would lay the groundwork for successful relationships between the animals and their caretakers. With consistency, training progressed from simple targeting and weighing behaviors to more complex tasks, such as presenting feet for hoof trims—the giraffe and zebras have mastered this behavior, the oryx are well on their way and, based on this success, the team plans to expand its hoof-trim training program to encompass every ungulate in the Zoo.
As these human-animal relationships blossomed, the hoofstock gradually became more trusting of their caretakers and accepting of changes in their routines. The Zoo’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020—which reduced some of the daily keeper distractions and the pressure to keep animals in public view—presented the perfect opportunity to introduce the hoofstock to new spaces.
The three zebra mares became the first to explore a new yard when they were introduced to the giraffe veldt. As they became more comfortable in this space, they were shifted into new holding spaces and, eventually, the train yard. Because the species forms fairly loose social connections, it was possible to have one mare in each space if needed.
The oryx, who are considered more skittish than the zebras, needed to be counter conditioned as they were introduced to new yards, barns, and heterospecifics. They have since shown increased behavioral diversity, exploratory behavior and confidence; and they can be easily separated as needed for veterinary procedures, reducing the stress of immobilizations.
The Zoo’s pair of dromedary camels, whose weights have been challenging to manage in the train yard, are periodically given access to the more spacious giraffe veldt for exercise.
The Zoo’s leadership team recognizes the benefits of expanding involvement in Species Survival Plans and has made it a key focus.
Moving the oryx out of the train yard presented the opportunity to acquire critically endangered eastern bongo—a new species to the Zoo. A male and female arrived last year, and an additional female is slated to arrive in the coming months. The animals are still adapting to their new home, but plans are in place to train the bongo to shift between habitats like the zebras and oryx.
A young female marabou stork was sent to the Zoo as an SSP recommendation. She is now able to live in the train yard until she is old enough to be paired with an older male in another section of the Zoo.
Three Ankole-Watusi steers arrived around the same time as the bongo. While they are not SSP animals, their unique appearance and gregarious attitudes consistently delight guests, and their impressive horns prompt dialogues on artificial selection between educators and students.
The crowning achievement of this effort may well be the introduction of a zebra stallion, something considered out of reach since the mares arrived in 2015. Due to the species’ social structure, males can only cohabitate with females for short periods of time—which would have been an impossibility if the zebras could not shift yards. Females must also be separated from conspecifics for several weeks postpartum.
“If you had told me a couple of years ago that we would have a stallion one day, I would have laughed at you,” said Hinson. “But we pulled it off, and we feel good about our ability to manage the zebras when babies start arriving.”
In the coming years, the Zoo will acquire more individual animals and hoofstock species as recommended by their respective SSPs.
In addition to the positive impacts it has on animal welfare, shifting animals around contributes to a more dynamic guest experience.
“Guests like to see animals in different places each visit and not knowing exactly what to expect when they walk through the gates,” said Hinson. “They may see oryx grazing next to giraffe one day and a zebra running through the same space the next week. It gives you another reason to come back.”
These changes have given the interpretive staff and volunteers stationed throughout Expedition Africa new talking points about animal welfare, social structures, and SSPs.
This new approach to hoofstock management is part of a larger, evidence-based movement within the Zoo and zoological community to provide animals with new spaces to explore and other species to interact with, elevating individual agency and choice.
The first such change came to fruition in 2016 with the construction of a second jaguar yard connected to the original yard by an overhead “tunnel.” This supplied the Zoo’s two cats (who are solitary in nature) an equivalent, public-facing space at all times and a convenient point from which to espy monkeys and birds in nearby habitats.
The black-handed spider monkey habitat was recently overhauled, growing from one enclosure to three (plus a research station) connected by overhead tunnels. Designers were tasked with accommodating the species’ natural fission-fusion behavior, wherein animals will break away from large social clusters to form smaller groups and reunite periodically; it is believed to be the only spider monkey habitat in the world where such behavior can be expressed.
A large Flooded Forest habitat that permanently houses capybaras, scarlet ibis, red-legged seriemas, macaws, and waterfowl is connected to living spaces for white-faced sakis and black howler monkeys. When the monkeys do not have access to the Flooded Forest, they make full use of the tunnels as napping spots.
Ellen Dreyer is the behavioral husbandry and wellness coordinator at the Brevard Zoo.
Elliot Zirulnik is the former communications manager at the Brevard Zoo.