Resilience and Animal Welfare: Bouncing Back from Challenges

As animal welfare scientists, one of the concepts we regularly discuss is resilience. Resilience is the degree to which an animal’s behavior and physiology are impacted by stressors or challenges. A highly resilient individual has the capacity to cope with environmental, social, and physical challenges and quickly “bounce back” following these disturbances. The good news is that animals can build resilience (i.e. become less reactive and more adaptive) by learning from previous experiences and gaining exposure to a variety of novel situations. So what can we do to increase resiliency in animals?
Fortunately, as with humans, positive experiences can enhance resilience and help individuals cope with stressors. Studies on chickens show that individuals living in enriched environments exhibit more stress resiliency than those housed in smaller, emptier pens. For example, in response to a stressor, non-enriched chickens demonstrate stronger startle reflexes than enriched chickens. Aside from enriching the environment, animal care professionals may specifically try to provide emotional or cognitive enrichment. Signaling a reward in advance or providing a reward that is larger than expected can be cognitively or emotionally enriching.
At Brookfield Zoo, we strive to provide as many novel, stimulating, and positive experiences as possible. As our Curator of Behavioral Husbandry, Tim Sullivan, reminds us, “static, predictable environments are the enemy of resilience,” and we must therefore, “incorporate novelty and change in to day-to-day interactions and practices.” As you stroll around the zoo, you will notice that our enclosures include enrichment designed to provide physical and cognitive challenges. You may see puzzle feeders, automatic feeders, or even carcasses. Have you ever been lucky enough to catch one of our gorillas or bears pouncing on a fruity treat encapsulated in an ice block? In order to stimulate a variety of senses, we also offer enrichment that may not be perceivable to humans, such as scents and unique substrates. In addition, for many species, we try to “keep things fresh” by varying the daily routine and making life a bit unpredictable. For example, we can present food differently by hiding it or releasing small amounts from a timed feeder throughout the day.
Furthermore, zoos may introduce events that are mildly unpleasant, yet part of the animal’s natural or life history, to confer some resilience. Short-lived stressors, such as exposure to the vocalizations or scents of a predator, may trigger vigilance responses that have beneficial physiological effects. Moreover, individuals can gain agency or a feeling control over their environment if they have the opportunity to overcome challenges. This involves looking for creative ways to allow animals to solve problems and perform activities that zookeepers typically do for them. For instance, animals may have to “hunt” or fish for their meals. Zookeepers can nurture the building of resilience by helping individuals develop the necessary skills, endurance, and motivation to carry out everyday tasks.
So, the next time you pay a visit to Brookfield Zoo, keep your eyes peeled for animals working to build that resiliency!
Dr. Jessica Whitham
Animal Welfare Biologist
Published November 29, 2022