Virtual Animal Welfare Assessment: Educational and Husbandry Tools for the Zoo Industry
As animal welfare becomes an integral component of Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation and animal care manuals, zoo managers, and veterinarians must understand and be able to assess the welfare of animals at their institutions. The Animal Behavior and Welfare Group at Michigan State University (www.canr.msu.edu/animalwelfare/index.html [VIN editor: Link not accessible 1/13/21]) has developed digital animal welfare assessment scenarios that provide virtual opportunities to evaluate the welfare of a variety of animals, including those in zoos and aquaria. These scenarios can also be used to enhance the implementation of animal care manuals by providing zoo staff with an opportunity to evaluate their use and understanding of these manuals by practicing their application in hypothetical situations.
Welfare assessment scenarios compare and contrast animals in two hypothetical exhibits with regards to keeper practices, feeding routines, enrichment, veterinary care, and exhibit quality. Scenarios are tailored to emphasize relevant areas for the species of interest. Information and images from the literature, species experts, veterinarians, and multiple AZA institutions are used to create unbiased scenarios that present realistic, yet fictitious, situations to discourage specific judgment of existing zoos and exhibits. Contributing zoos play an important role in reviewing the scenario before the final product is created, allowing the contributors to agree upon the text, images, and video to be used. Assessment scenarios have been developed for captive Amur tigers, giraffes, North American river otters, and black rhinoceros. Institutions are being approached to participate in creation of additional scenarios. Scenarios could be valuable to the zoo industry, as they allow for internal assessment of current practices and conditions. Scenarios can be used to augment taxon-specific animal care manuals by reinforcing and demonstrating practices related to meeting the needs of animals physically, mentally, and psychologically. Welfare assessment scenarios will not only demonstrate zoos’ commitment to animal welfare by providing continuing education materials for zoo staff, but also by fostering collaborations between zoos to create welfare scenarios, which aim to support industrywide goals of best meeting the needs of animals under their care.