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Article

Supporting Zoo Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare and Herd Dynamics with a More Complex and Expanded Habitat

1
Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR 97221, USA
2
Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Front Royal, VA 22630, USA
3
Department of Biology, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY 11530, USA
4
ABQ BioPark, 903 10th St. SW, Albuquerque, NM 87102, USA
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Eluned Price
Animals 2021, 11(9), 2566; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092566
Received: 30 June 2021 / Revised: 25 August 2021 / Accepted: 26 August 2021 / Published: 31 August 2021
(This article belongs to the Section Zoo Animals)
Ensuring good health and welfare is an increasingly important consideration for conservation of endangered species, whether free-ranging or managed to varying degrees under human care. The welfare-based design of a new habitat for Asian elephants focused on meeting the elephants’ physical, physiological, psychological, and social needs 24 h a day and across life stages. In this study, multiple elephant health and welfare indicators measured throughout transition and acclimation from the previous habitat to this new habitat provided evidence that the complexity, flexibility, space, and resource distribution of the new habitat was effective in improving overall welfare. The elephants were more active and walked farther on a daily basis in the new habitat, with an average walking distance of over 15 km per day. Disbursement of food with less temporal and spatial predictability increased foraging opportunities, which is important for psychological well-being of this species. All individuals showed adaptive and normal adrenal responses to the changes and challenges throughout the construction period and subsequent acclimation to a novel environment. They demonstrated social dynamics of a healthy herd in both habitats with transitions of individuals through life stages; however, in the new habitat they exhibited more autonomy in choosing whom to associate with socially, suggesting increased social equity for individuals.
Ensuring good health and welfare is an increasingly important consideration for conservation of endangered species, whether free-ranging or managed to varying degrees under human care. The welfare-based design of a new habitat for Asian elephants at the Oregon Zoo focused on meeting the elephants’ physical, physiological, psychological, and social needs 24 h a day and across life stages. The habitat was designed to encourage activity, promote species-typical behaviors, support changing social dynamics, offer increased opportunities for choice, and provide biologically meaningful challenges. In this 4-year study, we monitored elephant health and welfare indicators throughout the transition and acclimation from the previous habitat to the new habitat. Several welfare indicators obtained through longitudinal hormone analyses, behavior assessments, and GPS measurement of walking distance and space use provided evidence that these goals were achieved. The elephants were more active and walked farther on a daily basis in the new habitat, with an average walking distance of over 15 km per day. A switch from primarily caretaker-delivered food to seeking food on their own indicates that the disbursement of food with less temporal and spatial predictability increased foraging opportunities, which better satisfies appetitive motivations important for psychological well-being. All individuals showed adaptive and normal adrenal responses to change and challenge, with the highest fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations and variability during the construction phase, and a return to previous baseline concentrations in the new habitat, suggesting they acclimated well to the new environment. The elephants expressed a diverse range of species-typical behaviors and demonstrated social dynamics of a healthy herd in both habitats with transitions of individuals through life stages. They exhibited more autonomy in choosing whom to associate with socially and also by choosing different aspects of their environment with regular indoor/outdoor access and extensive resource use in the new habitat. Findings indicate that the complexity and flexibility of the new habitat and habitat management has been effective in improving overall welfare by providing meaningful challenges and the opportunity to express appetitive behaviors, by offering choice in environmental conditions, and by providing the space and resource distribution to support evolving herd dynamics and increased social equity for individuals. View Full-Text
Keywords: welfare; behavior; sociality; locomotion; GPS; glucocorticoids; adrenal activity; habitat evaluation; feeding predictability; elephant welfare; behavior; sociality; locomotion; GPS; glucocorticoids; adrenal activity; habitat evaluation; feeding predictability; elephant
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MDPI and ACS Style

Glaeser, S.S.; Shepherdson, D.; Lewis, K.; Prado, N.; Brown, J.L.; Lee, B.; Wielebnowski, N. Supporting Zoo Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare and Herd Dynamics with a More Complex and Expanded Habitat. Animals 2021, 11, 2566. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092566

AMA Style

Glaeser SS, Shepherdson D, Lewis K, Prado N, Brown JL, Lee B, Wielebnowski N. Supporting Zoo Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare and Herd Dynamics with a More Complex and Expanded Habitat. Animals. 2021; 11(9):2566. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092566

Chicago/Turabian Style

Glaeser, Sharon S., David Shepherdson, Karen Lewis, Natalia Prado, Janine L. Brown, Bob Lee, and Nadja Wielebnowski. 2021. "Supporting Zoo Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare and Herd Dynamics with a More Complex and Expanded Habitat" Animals 11, no. 9: 2566. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092566

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