Our wellness team conducts welfare and wellness-related research to ensure that the animals living in our care are given opportunities to thrive. Wellness begins with a deep understanding of the preferences and needs of each species in the Zoo.
The more the animals demonstrate positive natural behaviors, such as play or exploration, the more likely that wellness has been achieved. This requires attention to the Five Domains: behavioral, physical, nutritional, environmental and mental. Through the first four observable domains, we may get a better sense of the mental state of the animal and therefore its true state of wellness.
In 2018, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums implemented a new accreditation requirement that institutions, “must follow a written process for assessing animal welfare and wellness.” This requirement is both a proactive and a reactive process, including training of staff and creating a framework to document, evaluate and improve animal welfare and wellness.
To learn more about the AZA accreditation process, visit AZA’s website.
Every year, each animal at the Zoo is assessed, and we have over 2,000 animals! Based on how an animal (or groups of animals) score on the assessment, further action is taken collectively by animal care, wellness and other relevant staff to better understand how we can improve their lives to ensure that they are thriving. These annual assessments also act as a baseline to help us improve monitoring and care practices for animals throughout the year.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens wellness department is one of the world’s most productive animal welfare programs, with students, staff and faculty partners publishing many high-quality research papers annually. The Zoo’s Wildlife Wellness team currently includes:
Our committment to wildlife wellness would not be possible without the work of Dr. Terry Maple. Dr. Maple is the Founding Editor of the journal Zoo Biology and is an internationally recognized expert on the behavior, welfare and conservation of various animal species. His work has impacted the conservation efforts of award-winning zoos around the world, and his work has served as a guideline for animal wellness for zookeepers, researchers and conservation activities around the globe.
Dr. Kohn, UNF Assistant Professor of Psychology, focuses his research on understanding how animals experience and construct their social environments, and the feedback between social environments, individual development and animal welfare. To do this he combines novel observational approaches to measure animal behavior in-situ, and novel social network and statistical approach to uncover interactions between social interactions and later developmental, reproductive and welfare-related outcomes.
Dr. Mahovetz-Myers' research interests lie in animal behavior and cognition, including problem solving, learning and social aspects of cognition in primates. As post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Mahovetz-Myers is using touchscreen computers to conduct cognitive research with the residents of African Forest. The two main goals of this research are to promote optimal wellness and to better understand the cognitive abilities of the animals in our care.
Aimee Little got her start as a UNF graduate student studying the welfare of the rays at Stingray Bay. She is now the Applied Animal Wellness and Research Officer. Aimee oversees the day-to-day research operations of the wellness team. This involves onboarding new team members, initiating research to improve our knowledge of wellness for species, working together with animal care staff to address areas of wellness improvements and coordinating with other departments to improve animal wellness.
Starting as an Animal Wellness Intern and transitioning into the Animal Wellness and Research Assistant, Ryan Nugent assists all wellness staff members by facilitating behavioral observations of animals, cleaning and visualizing behavioral data and spearheading our wellness assessment process. Stemming from his work with Dr. Kohn, Ryan’s research interests involve studying social dynamics within and between various animals, specifically avian species, to create social networks that can provide insights into how various species display social cohesion in different ways.
Kendal Rogers: A recent graduate from the biology program at UNF, Kendal is the Animal Behavior Research Fellow in the Biology master’s program under the direction of Drs. Jim Gelsleichter and Lindsay Mahovetz-Myers. Her thesis will focus on the social network of rays at Stingray Bay.
Research is an essential component to furthering the knowledge and understanding of what improves animal wellness, both under human care and in wild environments. Our goal is to not just improve the wellness of animals in our care but of animals everywhere.
We use the assessments to help guide our research focuses for staff and students alike. Based on assessment scores, wellness staff uses that information to develop and conduct a study to determine what may be impacting the animal’s well-being and to potentially improve and/or sustain the environmental factor(s) involved. Some examples include:
Measure the effects of staff activity on behavior patterns in captive coyotes and the benefits of an evidence-based approach to zoo animal management.
Measure the effect of visitor density and interaction on the behavior of four ray species (Hypanus sabina, Hypanus say, Pseudobatos lentiginosus, and Rhinoptera bonasus) housed in an aquatic touch pool.
Measure the effect of tawny crazy ant density on Komodo dragon behavior.
We are using thermal imaging technology to determine if we can detect changes in stress levels and target specific factors that are linked to these changes in hopes to better understand individual and species’ stress thresholds. We also hope to provide evidence of inflammation, and effective treatments through the changes in thermal readings before and after treatment. Based on evidence that human women’s temperature increases during pregnancy, we are investigating whether thermal imaging can be a reliable non-invasive pregnancy detection method for animals.
Computer touchscreens are being used for cognitive research with various primates. This research aims to gain a better understanding of animal cognitive abilities, to determine factors that influence well-being and provide opportunities toward gaining optimal wellness.
Are you interested in the research we do? Consider becoming a volunteer or intern! Or, do you have your own study in mind? Submit an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org (Professional affiliation required, for example: university or college, zoological/aquatic or research institution, or sanctuary.)
Our ability to learn more about the behavior and wellness of our animal residents is enhanced by our working relationship with university partners at the University of North Florida and the University of Florida, as well as the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation. The Zoo is also part of the Project Advisory Committee for ZooMonitor, a behavioral research software developed by Lincoln Park Zoo that is used “to collect data that will aid in making and evaluating management decisions that impact animal [wellness].”