Over the last decades, this notion has evolved significantly. A number of studies are being conducted all over the world to try to understand the state of well-being of animals in general, and that of zoo animals specifically.
Although animals do not communicate with us, they often give signs that we try to interpret. In our environment, how do we determine whether they are “happy”? Animal ethology, the science of animal behaviour, has greatly contributed to our understanding in this field. Veterinary medicine has also evolved considerably and improved the care and nutrition of wild animals. With this knowledge, many animal management manuals have been written to help zoo professionals better manage animals in their care. Is it enough, however, to conclude that the welfare of animals is a done deal?
Zoos accredited by various associations (Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums [CAZA] in Canada, Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] in America, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria [EAZA] in Europe, etc.) establish quality standards for animals, the public and employees. Accreditation is therefore a good way of contributing to animal welfare. Zoos follow recommendations regarding many aspects of animal well-being: care, health, custody, safety, transportation, environmental enrichment of their habitat, biomedical training, etc.
Can we do better? Some people think we could if we focused on animal psychology rather than animal health. For many years and still today, we have prioritized health to ensure animal welfare because it is easily measurable and controllable while psychological health is not.
To improve animal welfare, we focus our efforts on reproducing their natural environment and living conditions. It is therefore a matter of finding a compromise between providing living conditions that are as “wild” as possible and making sure animals are healthy and safe.
This new scientifically supported trend is very promising and innovative for many. The Zoo sauvage, for its part, has been on that course for decades with its Nature Trail Park, wide-open spaces, diversified habitats providing challenges for animals, etc. Instinctively, the Zoo sauvage professionals have always managed the species under their care based on their natural needs. Today, this vision seems to have garnered general acceptance. Can we do better at the Zoo sauvage? Of course! Are we way ahead of most zoos? For sure! And we will continue to promote this vision.
Fortunately, zoos are nothing like the menageries of the 19th century. Mentalities evolve, knowledge is acquired and changes happen. Take for example the Quebec Civil Code. In December 2015, it was amended to recognize that “Animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs.”
If you want to know more on this matter, we recommend the following scientific article:
Veasey JS. In pursuit of peak animal welfare; the need to prioritize the meaningful over the measurable. Zoo Biology. 2017; 1-13.