A special collection of peer-reviewed scientific research articles today confirmed what thousands of Oregon Zoo visitors have already seen: Elephant Lands, the visionary new home for Portland’s beloved pachyderm family, represents a huge leap forward in terms of elephant welfare.
The collection, drawn from a comprehensive study on North American zoo elephant welfare, was published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, available online at collections.plos.org/elephant-welfare. It includes nine research papers, an overview, and formal commentary explaining the significance of the work and its importance to better understand and enhance zoo elephant welfare.
“Our plans for Elephant Lands were already in motion when the results came out,” said Oregon Zoo elephant curator Bob Lee. “But it’s great to get that scientific validation for what we’re doing.”
This is the first and only multi-institution study to comprehensively identify and measure variables that significantly contribute to North American zoo elephant welfare, thus allowing science to inform management practices, according to Dr. Nadja Wielebnowski, conservation and research manager at the Oregon Zoo and one of the study’s principal investigators.
“This is the kind of data set we needed to truly assess the individual and population health of elephants in North American zoos,” Wielebnowski said.
Among the key findings and takeaways:
Elephants need each other
Results showed that the elephants’ social lives play the biggest role in supporting behavioral health. For example, primary importance is for elephants to spend time in groups, and not be socially isolated. Human caregivers also can play an important role in an elephant’s social life through training and interactive sessions.
Size might be less important than you think
Although space is often linked to welfare in public discussions about elephants in zoos, researchers did not find evidence that the amount of enclosure space supports greater amounts of walking, decreased stereotypic behavior, improved body condition or better foot and joint health.
Floor material matters
One of the biggest links to good welfare was substrate, or the material on the habitat’s floor, says Dr. Matthew Holdgate, who coordinated this part of the study for his doctoral work at Portland State University. For example, the research demonstrated that decreased time spent on hard flooring significantly reduced the risk of foot and joint problems, which were found to be important health concerns for the population. “That may sound intuitive,” Dr. Holdgate said, “but the effects of substrate on elephants had never been studied closely before.” Individuals that spent more time on these hard surfaces also laid down less, which could equate to fewer hours of sleep, Holdgate says. (To learn more about the cushioning 4-foot-deep sand throughout the Oregon Zoo’s Elephant Lands, visit bit.ly/ElephantSand.)
You are what — and when — you eat
Greater food diversity — by way of food puzzles, timed feeders and other creative solutions — was closely tied to reproductive health in female elephants, according to Dr. Janine Brown, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s endocrinology laboratory. The study also revealed that with a less predictable feeding regimen elephants walked more each day. This was associated with a boost in social interactions and overall improved body condition. Since the majority of elephants in North American zoos are overweight, increasing daily movement is a step in the right direction. (To see a video of Oregon Zoo elephants eating from one of the new timed feeders at Elephant Lands, visit bit.ly/ElephantAutomat.) “This study confirms our research findings with other species such as polar bears that the enrichment we provide to keep zoo animals engaged, challenged and occupied is critical to good well-being,” said Dr. David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo deputy conservation manager and one of the study’s principal investigators.
Now it’s about the future
The study’s massive pool of new welfare data is just the beginning.
“This isn’t only about identifying the good and the bad of elephant care,” Wielebnowski said. “It shows us the opportunities for improving how elephants are managed, which is something we did not have detailed, objective information on before.”
“The collection provides a scientific perspective on a number of issues that are important to the conversation about elephants in zoos, and it is forward-looking as a resource that can help shape and inform the future of elephant care,” added Dr. Cheryl Meehan, the study’s consulting project manager and director of Portland’s AWARE Institute.
Meehan also noted that the research “can be extended to inform elephant conservation efforts given that only a minority of free-ranging elephants exists in large undisturbed protected areas, while many ‘wild’ elephants are managed in small reserves.”
The research is the outcome of work by a 27-member study team that includes independent consultants, zoo professionals and faculty from three universities. It was funded by an $800,000 leadership grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded to the Honolulu Zoo Society and administered by Dr. Kathy Carlstead. Team members and dozens of research assistants from widely varied disciplines developed quantitative measures to assess multiple elephant-welfare indicators as well as a large variety of housing and management practices.