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Using animal behavior science to measure captive elephant welfare

Abstract from Scott and LaDue, 2019:

Population‐level analyses suggest that habitat complexity, but not necessarily space availability, has important welfare outcomes for elephants in human care. At the Dallas Zoo, the opening of a new exhibit complex allowed us to measure the behavior of two female African elephants across three treatments to evaluate the independent effects of complexity and space. Preoccupancy observations were conducted in the elephants’ older exhibit, which consisted of a smaller, more simple yard (630 m2). Subsequent postoccupancy observations measured behavior in two different spaces in the new exhibit: a larger, complex yard (15,000 m2), and a smaller, but complex yard (1,520 m2). The elephants’ overall activity levels were greater in complex habitats, regardless of their size. Similar effects of habitat complexity oversize were observed with greater rates of foraging and lower rates of being stationary. Furthermore, elephants were out of view of visitors significantly more in the small, simple yard compared to either of the more complex habitats. However, exhibit size affected the incidence of stereotypic behavior (with lower rates of stereotypy in the larger exhibit compared to the smaller yards) and investigatory behavior (elephants investigated their environments more with increasing size and complexity). Behavioral diversity also increased with exhibit size and complexity. These results indicate that space availability alone is not sufficient to enhance the behavioral welfare of zoo elephants. Therefore, facilities with limited space can still encourage species‐appropriate behaviors and improved welfare for the elephants in their care by converting a small, simple area into a more complex habitat.

Innovative approaches to understand how animals interact with their environments

Abstract from Scott et al., 2016:

Radio and satellite telemetry collars have been used across taxa, including with elephants, in situ for decades to collect data used for various analyses. To quantify the movement patterns of African elephants, Loxodonta africana, in a zoo, we modified a Real-Time Location System using active Radio Frequency Identification tags originally developed for inventory and asset tracking in warehouses. This is the first phase of a multi-phase project that we have termed the Real-Time Observer of Animal Movement. It allows for the continuous data collection and data analytics of elephant movement and space use in a mixed-species African savanna habitat at the Dallas Zoo. This system could prove to be a useful remote welfare tool for a variety of animal species at multiple facilities.
We determined that a Real-Time Location System using Radio Frequency Identification tags could be used to continuously monitor elephant movement, social relationships, and exhibit use remotely over several acres in a zoo with a volume of data not otherwise possible to achieve. Real-time visual outputs include current location in the habitat, paths taken around the habitat, habitat preferences, social relationships between the elephants, and data tables with average rate of travel and distance traveled.
The pilot system at the Dallas Zoo is the first-ever use of active Radio Frequency Identification technology to observe zoo animal behavior patterns and monitor welfare. It has proven to be an effective tool for efficiently collecting data continuously and remotely throughout the day and night. It represents the first phase of a multifaceted project that will add capabilities and functionality for additional species and other zoos to form a network for sharing data to inform captive animal management strategies.