Effects of change in keeping method on elephant welfare at Melbourne Zoo (#861)
In late January 2014, the keeping method of the Asian elephants at Melbourne Zoo (n=8) transitioned from free-contact to protected-contact. The free-contact keeping method involves both positive and negative reinforcement, where the keeper and the elephant share the same space. Protected-contact involves the keeper having contact with the elephant through a protective barrier. The aim of protected-contact is to increase keeper safety and eventually eliminate the need for negative reinforcement.
This study examines the potential implications to the welfare of the elephants over time after the shift from free-contact to protected-contact, by measuring a range of welfare indicators, including response to keeper commands (including the use/frequency of positive and negative reinforcement), general behaviours (ethograms), vocalisations, exercise, body condition, foot health, compliance with medical treatment, and stress measured through cortisol levels in faeces. Data will be presented on how these indicators varied across three separate 24-day periods over the 14 month study.
These findings will provide insight into how the animals responded to the change in keeping method and address any changes that may have had an adverse effects on the elephant’s welfare. Furthermore, this study will develop a comprehensive set of welfare indicators that can be used to assess future studies in elephant welfare over time, and also provides a case study for the zoo industry, as many other zoos are likely to undergo the same transition over the next decade.