room to roam

At CZS we listen to what you, our guests, have to say. That’s why we ask you to fill out surveys and appreciate when you do. We have noticed from your feedback that you have some concerns about “zoo exhibits being large enough” for certain animals both here at Brookfield Zoo and other zoos and aquariums.  The staff at Brookfield Zoo share your concern about wildlife and we have the science to help answer that question. So I thought I would share some of the latest science we have to understand the question of “are zoo exhibits large enough?"

The first thing to consider is the idea of quality versus size. Size of an exhibit would solely focus on the length, width and height of the environment in which animals live within a zoological setting. Quality of an exhibit would relate to everything within the exhibit including all of the amazing things our animal care staff do every day to enrich our animal’s lives. What we are finding through research at facilities throughout North America is that while exhibit size is important, the quality of an animal’s environment is more important.

Elephants are a good example. Elephants are large and have natural ranges in the wild much larger than any zoological environment.  However, research has shown that even for elephants within a zoological environment, the foraging opportunities they are given throughout a day and having appropriate social groups is more important than the size of their exhibit.  In fact, African elephants examined at one zoological institution walk daily distances equal to their wild counterparts in Botswana in areas of food and water abundance. If elephants have all the resources they need, adequate food, water and mates, there is no reason for elephants or any animal to walk long distances, in fact an important part of survival is conserving energy. Think of it this way, would you walk from your house to a restaurant ten miles away to have the same lunch you could have at home?

Brookfield Zoo staff put these research findings into practice when designing new or improving existing exhibits. Brookfield Zoo animal care staff works hard providing dynamic exhibits and appropriate social groupings based on the latest science to enhance the welfare of the animals under our care.  From the multi-generational group of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to the automatic feeders stimulating foraging behavior for our polar bears, the Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo is a leader within the field of zoo animal welfare.  So the next time you visit us, take a look at what is inside the exhibits (natural substrates, plants and trees, environmental enrichment such as automatic feeders, water sources, and appropriate social groups).  While size is important the quality of the exhibit matters more to ensure high levels of welfare of the animals in our care.

Dr. Lance Miller
Senior Director of Animal Welfare
Published March 13, 2017