The practice of housing elephants in zoos has been a topic that has received significant media attention in recent years. Despite this, no comprehensive scientific assessment of the welfare status of elephants in North American zoos has been conducted. In a study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a multi-institutional partnership is working to document the current condition of all elephants in AZA zoos and to determine the environmental, management, and husbandry factors that are most influential to their welfare. This unprecedented three-year study is breaking new ground in the field of welfare assessment by documenting welfare across a wide array of components and by utilizing measures of both positive and negative welfare. Beginning in 2011, data will be collected on a variety of facility-based input variables (e.g., training program, enclosure size, enrichment) and animal-based outcome variables (e.g., reproductive, adrenal, metabolic and nutritional hormones, social behavior, body condition, and veterinary medical exams) for African and Asian elephants at AZA institutions. Data on each elephant will be collected via archival specimen reports, questionnaires, and laboratory analysis of biological samples. In addition, the study will include documentation of activity budget and walking distance of elephants housed at a representative cross-section of the participating zoos. Results of this study will identify the facility-based measures that most closely relate to welfare outcomes, providing critical information to elephant managers. The welfare assessment process developed in this study is expected to serve as a model from which welfare evaluation tools for other zoo species can be created. Members of the research team will be on-hand to answer questions and facilitate data collection planning with staff present from participating institutions.
The authors thank the Institute for Museum and Library Services for funding this work.