Animal Welfare and Behavior: Opportunities to Thrive
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2014
Donald L. Janssen1, DVM, DACZM; Lance Miller2, PhD; Greg Vicino1
1San Diego Zoo Global, San Diego, CA, USA; 2Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield, IL, USA


The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Accreditation Standards1 require each institution to develop a “clear process for identifying, communicating, and addressing animal welfare concerns within the institution in a timely manner, and without retribution.” This requirement leaves it up to each institution how to comply. The strategy that San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) is using to comply with this requirement is described here. It is based on our desire to ensure that each animal under our care has the best life possible. The guiding principle for implementing the strategy is that it uses a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to go beyond personal opinions and perceptions in order to achieve an objective assessment. The process is grounded in our strategic plan which specifically calls out that animal health and welfare is our top priority.

The Animal Welfare Panel is a small, cross-functional team of animal care experts (a total of seven scientists, veterinarians, and curators), which unifies all animal welfare activities across our facilities. It is advisory to the Chief Life Sciences Officer and curators and has no regulatory authority of its own. This team provides management tools and high-level organizational support for curators and produces consistency for animal welfare programs throughout our organization.

The Panel promotes the collection of evidence-based metrics to inform the Curatorial/Collection staffs’ development of best practices and animal care standards. The metrics include input variables (i.e., natural history and animal management standards) and output variables, such as reproductive success, behavioral diversity, and other positive and negative indicators of animal welfare. Behavioral research is one tool that we can use to measure those outputs. Behavioral research often includes the following: behavioral indicators of welfare, behavioral monitoring, and specific research projects used to examine applied aspects of animal care. Findings from behavioral research can be used to develop a database for making evidence-based decisions about animal care.

The Panel responds to real issues and concerns using science-based evaluations. The system is designed to encourage responsible reporting, ideally through their supervisor as the first option. The concerns are submitted through a process that allows anonymity and encourages the submitter to use evidence to justify the concern. The format also encourages the submitter to offer solutions that are evidence-based. Submissions are prioritized based on urgency, and recommendations are made in a timely, transparent, and deliberative manner using a system designed to be trusted by both the administration and the animal care staff. The Panel looks for effective and realistic solutions, and works to develop an organizational culture that ensures animal welfare is always considered in decision-making processes.

The Animal Welfare Panel program for ensuring animal welfare is operationalized by the San Diego Zoo Global’s “Opportunities to Thrive” (derived from and expanding upon the current ‘five freedoms’ developed in the United Kingdom2) and used as a tool to evaluate specific questions as they relate to each individual’s welfare.

1.  Opportunity for a well-balanced diet—Fresh water and a suitable, species-specific diet will be provided in a way that ensures full health and vigor, both behaviorally and physically.

2.  Opportunity to self-maintain—An appropriate environment including shelter and species-specific substrates that encourage opportunities to self-maintain.

3.  Opportunity for optimal health—Providing supportive environments that increase the likelihood of healthy individuals as well as rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury or disease.

4.  Opportunity to express species-specific behavior—Quality spaces and appropriate social groupings will be provided that encourage species-specific behaviors at natural frequencies and of appropriate diversity while meeting social and developmental needs of each species in the collection.

5.  Opportunities for choice and control—Providing conditions in which animals can exercise control and make choices to avoid suffering and distress, and make behavior meaningful.

By establishing this evidence-based framework, we hope to join with other institutions in developing an innovative approach to measuring welfare. This should enable us all to identify areas of excellence and best practice, as well as areas in need of attention. Sharing the dynamics and wonders of the natural world through our thriving animal collection—with our organizational and professional peers, our animal care staff, and our guests—will be one of the most significant results of these efforts. This will become a foundational cornerstone of our continuing pursuit of organizational excellence and best practices in animal welfare.

Literature Cited

1.  Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The accreditation standards and related policies, 2014 edition. (accessed 27 May 2014). [VIN editor: link could not be accessed on 12-3-20].

2.  Farm Animal Welfare Committee, Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom. Five Freedoms. (accessed 27 May 2014).


Speaker Information
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Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Global
San Diego, CA, USA

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