Meet our New Animal Welfare Scientist

My name is Dr. Charles Ritzler, and I am incredibly excited to be joining the Brookfield Zoo Chicago team as an animal welfare scientist conducting animal behavior and welfare research.

A born and raised Midwesterner, my passion for zoos started in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent many summer days visiting Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I was instantly enthralled by seeing orangutans climb to seemingly unconscionable heights and observing sea lions flit back and forth like small whiskered torpedoes through the water. My love for zoos only grew after those early visits, and I told myself and my family members that I would work with those very same animals in a zoo one day.

With this goal in mind, I moved from the southern shores of Lake Erie to a city on its eastern shores – Buffalo, New York. Here I attended Canisius University and received my undergraduate degree in Animal Behavior, Ecology, & Conservation, or ABEC. Through courses like Animal Behavior 101, Social Organization of Mammals, and Primatology, I felt like I was well on my way to becoming an animal care professional, soon providing well-balanced diets and exceptional enrichment to many different animals. That was, until, I discovered behavioral research as a member of Canisius’ “Team Ape,” an undergraduate research team led by ABEC professor, Dr. Sue Margulis. Once per week, I was able to closely observe a family group of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Buffalo Zoo, recording their behavior and social interactions. Through the research team, I was able to learn how to interpret the behavior of gorillas as new babies were born and developed, as well as how to analyze these data and work with the zoo’s animal care professionals to provide the best possible care for the gorillas.

As my time with the gorillas was drawing to a close, my journey took me back to Cleveland, where I worked as a research associate at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo while simultaneously working towards my Ph.D. in biology at Case Western Reserve University. For my dissertation, my primary research interest was (and continues to be!) how zoo habitat design promotes animal welfare, and how we can continuously improve the design of these spaces to meet the animals’ needs. One of my studies utilized camera-outfitted drones to generate digital models of primate habitats using 3D photogrammetry, and from these models we could easily calculate the amount of space that was available for the animals to use.

After completing my Ph.D., I served as director of animal wellbeing at San Antonio Zoo, where I facilitated the zoo’s animal enrichment, training, and welfare assessment programs. And now I have returned to Brookfield Zoo Chicago, which represents an almost “full circle” moment for me. In 2016, I was a research volunteer here at the zoo, coding chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) behavior and processing fecal samples for hormone analysis in the very same department I now work in.

As an animal welfare scientist at Brookfield Zoo Chicago, I am excited to help further the zoo’s mission of connecting people with wildlife and nature by using science to help optimize the care of and encourage natural behaviors in the zoo’s animals. Currently, I am working with the zoo’s bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) team researching dolphin communication. One of the objectives of this study to use cognitive bias testing to determine whether we can attribute a dolphin’s emotional state to different vocalizations, hopefully giving us a better understanding of their welfare state on a day-to-day basis. Make sure to check out our Dolphins in Action presentation next time you visit the zoo, as you’ll be hearing updates on our ongoing research in the near future!

Charles Ritzler, Ph.D.,
Animal Welfare Scientist
Published July 3, 2024