Glaeser, S. S., Shepherdson, D., Lewis, K. et al. 2021. Supporting zoo Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) welfare and herd dynamics with a more complex and expanded habitat. Animals 11(9), 2566.
Ensuring good health and welfare is an increasingly important consideration for conservation of endangered species, whether free-ranging or managed to varying degrees under human care. The welfare-based design of a new habitat for Asian elephants at the Oregon Zoo focused on meeting the elephants’ physical, physiological, psychological, and social needs 24 h a day and across life stages. The habitat was designed to encourage activity, promote species-typical behaviors, support changing social dynamics, offer increased opportunities for choice, and provide biologically meaningful challenges. In this 4-year study, we monitored elephant health and welfare indicators throughout the transition and acclimation from the previous habitat to the new habitat. Several welfare indicators obtained through longitudinal hormone analyses, behavior assessments, and GPS measurement of walking distance and space use provided evidence that these goals were achieved. The elephants were more active and walked farther on a daily basis in the new habitat, with an average walking distance of over 15 km per day. A switch from primarily caretaker-delivered food to seeking food on their own indicates that the disbursement of food with less temporal and spatial predictability increased foraging opportunities, which better satisfies appetitive motivations important for psychological well-being. All individuals showed adaptive and normal adrenal responses to change and challenge, with the highest fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations and variability during the construction phase, and a return to previous baseline concentrations in the new habitat, suggesting they acclimated well to the new environment. The elephants expressed a diverse range of species-typical behaviors and demonstrated social dynamics of a healthy herd in both habitats with transitions of individuals through life stages. They exhibited more autonomy in choosing whom to associate with socially and also by choosing different aspects of their environment with regular indoor/outdoor access and extensive resource use in the new habitat. Findings indicate that the complexity and flexibility of the new habitat and habitat management has been effective in improving overall welfare by providing meaningful challenges and the opportunity to express appetitive behaviors, by offering choice in environmental conditions, and by providing the space and resource distribution to support evolving herd dynamics and increased social equity for individuals.