A ground-breaking study announced today revealed that analyzing 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.
Representatives 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 today at the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) annual meeting attended by zoo professionals from throughout North America. The study is funded by an $800,000 leadership grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded to the Honolulu Zoo Society and administered by Kathy Carlstead, Ph.D. 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.
"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 Cheryl Meehan, Ph.D., the study's consulting project manager. "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."
She added that: "The results reported today are at the population level and do not address any specific zoo or any specific elephant.''
The study team identified six welfare indicators, including some perceived issues for zoo elephants such as body mass, behavior, 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. Analyzing data and identifying correlations allowed the team to determine which factors are most strongly associated with each welfare indicator. Researchers presented the most significant study findings on welfare indicators, including:
"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.
"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," she added.
Following today's 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.
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