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Beyond Survival

Dr Jake Veasey

Sept 4, 2023

Reflections on a successful welfare conference

The Taiwan Aquarium and Zoological Park Association and Taipei Zoo's Beyond Survival conference focusing on the psychological wellbeing of captive animals was my second trip to Taipei Zoo and Taiwan, and it didn’t disappoint. In attendance to present in person were myself, Prof Donald Broom from Cambridge University Vet School, and Dr Samantha Ward from Nottingham Trent University, with virtual presentations from Prof Georgia Mason from the University of Guelph, and Prof Anna Watkins from the University of Lincoln.

Both days were packed with enthusiastic participants supported by some excellent translators. In addition to presenting, I ran a workshop over two days on mixed species management – how to select species, ensure success and maximise the welfare benefits, which if done correctly are considerable!

We toured the zoo’s Pangolin Dome to discuss the species mix, design and management there, following which I led a classroom session, which included an exercise where participants had to present a theoretical mixed species habitat, why they picked the species they did, and what steps they took to ensure it could succeed in maximising the welfare of all species involved.

Outside of the workshops and plenary sessions we toured the zoo’s extensive reptile rescue facilities which due to the high influx of illegally traded reptiles, is bursting at the seams, we even found time for some bird watching and to brush up on my rusty blowpipe technique in the veterinary centre!

For the plenary session, I spoke on the importance of habitat design in underpinning animal welfare. I started by setting out the necessity of being aware of differing conceptions of welfare which can often go unspoken, but can still conflict with each other nonetheless, before establishing how zoo design is one of the most impactful, and least adjustable factors influencing welfare - management can change dramatically and rapidly, but the highly capital-intensive infrastructure that comprises many zoo habitats are intended to have a degree of permanence to them, which means if designers get it wrong, the welfare consequences can be profound, expensive, and very long term! We’ve all seen both new and old zoo habitats where it’s impossible not to wonder “what were they thinking…” and feel desperately sad for the animals that live there, as well as for the missed opportunity.

I went on to explain how our objective, evidence-based methodology to establish welfare priorities as a foundation for welfare enhancing (and subsequently future-proofed) designs works. I provided some examples of how these insights are transforming how we approach the design of habitats for a range of species by basing our design methodology on the fundamental needs of species rather than simply replicating existing, invariably flawed designs and management philosophies. Finally, I went on to share some of our research, which for the first time demonstrated how animal welfare impacts the visitor experience; with independent assessments of welfare accounting for 37% of the variation in visitor enjoyment and personal perceptions of welfare by visitors accounting for 44% of the variation in their enjoyment across a range of 32 habitats. This is always useful to remind people that animal welfare doesn’t conflict with the commercial priorities of zoos, it underpins it!

All in all, another fantastic trip the awesome Taipei Zoo; I hope to be back soon!

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