The key to animal welfare is in their behaviour

Zoo animal behaviour
© iStock/ricardoreitmeyer

New research suggests that studying the body language of zoo animals could be the key to understanding and improving their welfare.

Animal behavioural research in zoos usually focuses on whether animals are sleeping, eating and breeding. However, new research conducted by the University of Exeter and the University of Winchester suggests that zoos can make vast improvements in their animal welfare development by using a method developed in livestock farming, Qualitative Behavioural Assessments.

By monitoring an animal’s posture, facial movements and activity levels zookeepers can highlight the things that calm, excite, interest and distress animals.

“Zookeepers are dedicated and knowledgeable about their animals, and they will often recognise the psychological state of an animal by its behaviour and body language,” said Dr Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter.

Dr Rose continued: “What we are suggesting is a more consistent version of this, carried out over time.

“Certain behaviours will indicate certain moods in a particular species, and we should build our knowledge of this for different species that live in zoos.

“For example, lions have a wide range of facial expressions, and research on these expressions could help zoos understand the animals’ state of mind.

“This information could then be used to improve welfare by adjusting enclosures, diets, feeding times or any number of other aspects of the way animals are kept.”

Dr Rose conducts most of his research at the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre, he is now conducting research on how swans express their psychological state.

“We’re looking at how much time they spend investigating and exploring their habitat, which could show that they’re feeling emotions like being bold or confident or interested,” he said.

“When they’re apprehensive or unsure, they appear to move less and be more vigilant, and keep their feathers compressed close to their bodies.”

The study evaluates existing research on Qualitative Behavioural Assessment, much of it from farming, and suggests research opportunities and practices that could be adopted by zoos.

“Animal welfare in zoos has improved dramatically in the last 10 or 20 years, and this method gives zoos another way to recognise and promote positive welfare,” Dr Rose said.

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