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Interview with the Director of Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews the Director of Detroit Zoological Society’s pioneering Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW), Dr. Cynthia Bennett. Several years ago during a visit to Budapest, Hungary for an international zoo conference I first learned of a partnership between a regional, metropolitan zoo and a wildlife sanctuary. From what I knew...

Courtesy of Detroit Zoological Society

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews the Director of Detroit Zoological Society’s pioneering Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW), Dr. Cynthia Bennett.

Several years ago during a visit to Budapest, Hungary for an international zoo conference I first learned of a partnership between a regional, metropolitan zoo and a wildlife sanctuary.

From what I knew this was unprecedented, as zoos and sanctuaries catered to different animal populations, and typically relied on different resources for managing their living collections. In addition, their respective parental associations operated independently with fairly different missions.   Zoos worked to conserve wildlife populations through captive breeding programs, while sanctuaries provided care for non-breeding wildlife populations in need of homes.

Although one contingent may seem to focus on the population and the other on the individual, both strive to offer the best animal care for their respective collection animals while also making provisions for enhanced animal welfare.

In recent, years the distinctions have blurred as zoos have served in the capacity of conventional sanctuary, and sanctuaries have garnered some recognition for captive breeding of endangered fauna while conducting sorta situ conservation research.

In fact, after my trip to Hungary, I developed a small taxon-specific informational exchange workshop for zoos, rescue centers and sanctuaries. I had no expectation that these entities would necessarily develop a working relationship, but at the very least, my hope was that they could share information regarding animal care and welfare.

The Detroit Zoo is a pioneer among zoological institutions as it has embraced the sanctuary community in an effort to address captive wildlife welfare issues.

As one of the most progressive captive wildlife facilities in the world, the Detroit Zoo has forged relationships with animal sanctuaries and humane societies. The zoo has also emerged as a rescue center for abandoned and confiscated exotic animals. Several zoos including the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium have followed their lead.

In 2009, the Detroit Zoological Society created the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to explore current animal welfare issues facing zoological parks, to conduct non-invasive, applied animal welfare studies on collection animals, and to serve as an educational resource for the community of captive wildlife professionals around the world.

I wanted to learn more about the Center’s mission and was excited to get the opportunity to interview the Center’s director, Dr. Cynthia Bennett.

Courtesy of Detroit Zoological Society

Jordan: While in veterinary school, students learn to distinguish between animal rights and animal welfare. The Center makes a distinction between animal care and animal welfare.  Clearly there is a difference between providing husbandry and health care for a population of captive animals and providing an environment that is conducive to an individual animal’s psychological well-being. This is a very simplistic view. Can you elaborate from the perspective of Center with respect to how you view the differences between animal welfare and animal care in a zoo setting?

Cynthia: Welfare in its simplest terms can be described as a state of good mental, physical and emotional health. It refers to the condition of individuals and is self-determined, which is a central challenge for its evaluation – we must rely on and interpret indirect indicators of animals’ psychological and emotional states. Although good care is essential to good welfare, it does not in and of itself ensure great welfare.

While basic animal care in zoos has greatly improved in recent decades, focus has primarily been on what animals physically need to survive and breed.  For example, we have made tremendous improvements in the physical environment in which captive animals live, the diets we provide, and even in determining when an animal should reproduce.  However, improving welfare requires understanding states and conditions that are not easily seen or measured. Do animals prefer bigger or more complex environments? Is a lot of poorer quality food that an animal has to locate, procure and process better or worse than a carefully formulated nutritionally dense diet? Is it better to have access to a pre-selected mate during a time of maximal reproductive receptivity or to select from a variety of mates?  In many cases, we simply do not know. We are, thus, often unable to provide the animals in our care with relevant and meaningful choice and control in their lives. This limited understanding of the full needs of captive exotic animals, constitutes a significant gap in our knowledge and limits our ability to ensure great welfare.

Jordan: Zoos are living laboratories that typically offer opportunities for staff and visiting researchers to conduct applied research that ultimately improves propagation programs as well as husbandry, health and welfare for collection animals. The Center serves as a clearinghouse for disseminating information on zoo animal welfare issues. It also administers its own applied animal research programs.  Can you mention any studies that you have underway or plan to conduct in the future that specifically address zoo animal welfare?

Cynthia: Our research priorities reflect identification of existing questions and current gaps in knowledge, staff expertise, institutional history and commitment to specific taxa within the resident animal population as well as needs and opportunities in the broader zoo community. Our current research interests include developing and validating noninvasive measures of welfare and measuring and evaluating the effects of captive environments and management practices on welfare.

Technological advances are resulting in new tools or in the refinement of existing tools that will make study of animals in captivity more efficient, less time consuming, and much more accurate. More importantly, the technology allows us to study animals in environments that were difficult or impossible before and to do so with little or no impact on the animal.  However, we first need to validate and determine the best use of this technology with captive exotic animals.  We are currently evaluating the use of infrared thermography as a noninvasive tool to measure stress in a variety of animals.  We are starting by studying heat loss through the eyes and nares of animals being restrained for routine veterinary procedures.

We are also very interested in evaluating the functionality of exhibits from the animals’ perspective.  Zoos have put a lot of resources into new, creative, immersive habitats that are putatively better for the animals.  But, few institutions actually evaluate how the animals use this space.  Thus, we have little information to offer others trying to improve their own facilities. We are currently evaluating how our polar bears use the habitats in the award-winning Arctic Ring of Life facility and how our bachelor group of gorillas use the habitats available to them.

Jordan: Will the Center continue to work with sanctuaries and rescue centers or is the focus primarily on advancing zoo welfare programs?

Cynthia: The Detroit Zoological Society will continue its work with sanctuaries and rescue centers.  In fact, twice a year, in partnership with the Michigan Humane Society, the Detroit Zoological Society hosts the largest pet adoption event in the nation.  It has been very successful and we plan to continue this partnership.  Of course, we will always help captive exotic animals in need where we can.  In 2009, the Detroit Zoological Society participated in what is now known as the largest exotic animal seizure in U.S. history when nearly 27,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects were seized from a Texas-based exotic animal dealer. More than 1,000 of these animals were eventually transferred to the Detroit Zoo. Most recently, the Detroit Zoo received three orphaned grizzly bear cubs from Alaska.

Jordan: The Center serves the following functions:

1.  To assemble and make easily available current knowledge of best practices and the body of scientific research on captive exotic animal welfare;

2.  To identify, facilitate and conduct applied research on zoo animal welfare;

3.  To convene important discussions on animal welfare policy and practices by hosting professional forums and public lectures;

4.  To conduct animal welfare training workshops; and

5.  To create awareness of improvements in zoo animal welfare through annual awards recognizing significant animal welfare initiatives.

Can you briefly address any these mandates further or perhaps discuss future plans?

Cynthia: Animal welfare science is grounded in many different disciplines (nutrition, animal science, physiology, behavior, psychology, biology), but has only recently emerged as a discipline of its own. This results in a broadly dispersed scientific literature that is not readily accessible to many zoo professionals. A primary, easily accessible source of information about the current state of exotic animal welfare, research studies and policy is needed.

One way that we hope to accomplish this is through a publicly accessible online presence – we are in the process of developing an information portal.  This will be an interactive web presence that serves as a primary source of information about the current state of exotic animal welfare and helps to facilitate dialogue on animal welfare science and policy.  The web portal will make accessible the bibliographic references assembled by the Center, and other animal welfare resources (including white papers, forum proceedings and research protocols).  We hope to host an online community with listservs, user accounts and blogs and will be a central point for convening electronic discussions and communication on both the science and policy of zoo animal welfare.  To see the current website go to  Anyone can access the site and watch it grow.

Open dialog and the sharing of information is essential if we wish to make the systemic change necessary to ensure optimal welfare of every animal in our care. Unfortunately, professional focus and dialogue about animal welfare in zoos is very limited. Each year, the Center hosts animal welfare lectures, forums and workshops that provide opportunities for presenting research findings and for engaging in important discussion and dialogue on animal welfare science and policy. Our goal is to bring scholars, researchers and advocates together annually to share what is known and emerging in animal welfare science and to advance animal welfare policy and practice. In 2011 we hosted a very successful forum titled, not surprisingly, “From Good Care to Great Welfare.”  Podcasts of the talks can be found on the Center’s website.

The Center also has the responsibility and challenge of translating and synthesizing scientific information on animal welfare for the professional community in a way that is understandable and useful. So, we offer animal welfare training workshops for animal care (curators, keepers, veterinarians), facilities, horticulture and design staff. These workshops are unique within the zoo industry, providing significant professional development opportunities for front-line animal staff, providing current information on animal welfare and training staff on how to apply that information directly to the animals in our care. We believe these workshops are a significant development in animal welfare training.  Not only are they directed specifically at animal welfare issues, they also engage all staff whose everyday decisions impact animal welfare.

Jordan: With regard to the Detroit Zoo, what comes to mind when you think of certain exhibits or enclosures or even management procedures that speak to a very progressive appreciation for animal welfare in the zoo setting?

Cynthia: Arctic Ring of Life

The Arctic Ring of Life (ARL) is the largest and most unique polar bear exhibit in North America.  Like other large, social mammals (e.g., primates, elephants), polar bears and other bears are especially prone to development of repetitive, stereotypic behaviors.  The ARL is the first major polar bear exhibit to consider, prioritize and attempt to provide for the full needs of polar bears in its design.  Its layout allows for the housing of multiple bears in varying social situations and groups, while promoting extensive choice and control within a complex physical and social environment.

Welfare Technicians: Not only has the Detroit Zoological Society launched the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, but we have thoroughly integrated welfare into our own day-to-day operations. A dedicated staff coordinates and oversees the Zoo’s onsite welfare initiatives as well as the initiatives of the Center.  The Society is perhaps the only Zoo in the nation with “welfare technicians.”  These technicians spend 50% of their time on animal enrichment, animal training and assisting with welfare research projects. Technicians can be found working with mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: