As disappearing habitat and other human-induced pressures threaten species in the wild, the care of animals in captivity becomes more critical. The Chicago Zoological Society and similar organizations are the guardians of captive wildlife populations, maintaining the health and well-being of their animal charges.

What goes into the care of zoo animals? The answers lie somewhere in the wild. The best way to care for animals in captivity is to understand the biology of the species in their natural environments, to understand behavior and physical adaptations, diet specifications, and social and space requirements.

At Brookfield Zoo Chicago, animal husbandry practices attempt to create an environment that will support the animals’ growth and development. Animals are managed in natural social groupings. For example, gorillas are naturally sociable and live in groups in the wild. The gorillas in Tropic World are housed in a group, with one silverback male, some adult females, and their offspring all living together.

Snow leopards, on the other hand, are solitary in the wild, with the male and female only coming together to mate. Thus the single animal that may be on exhibit is not lonely but rather is comfortable in its solitary existence.

At the Zoo, routine husbandry may include shifting animals from one area to another, separating animals from each other, and working with the animals so that they tolerate close visual inspection by keepers and treatment by veterinarians.

Reproduction management depends on a thorough knowledge of not only reproductive physiology but of reproductive behavior and mating system. Procedures for introducing animals for reproduction or adding individuals to social groups are carefully tailored to reflect natural behaviors.

Physical characteristics of the captive environment are also critical for success. Specific ambient temperatures ranges are required for each species. Other physical aspects of the enclosure that are critical include the space available, the lighting, and the “furniture” within the enclosure (such as climbing structures, logs for denning, trees, or other physical barriers allowing for isolation). Aquatic species such as sharks have environmental requirements such as temperature and water quality of their aquarium enclosures that require special Life Support mechanical systems.

Successful animal husbandry practices have been developed through years of experience and collaboration between staff at Brookfield Zoo Chicago and researchers studying the animals in the wild.