Accreditation guidelines include nutrition, environment, health, and behaviour and aim for “positive experiences.”
It’s a core childhood memory, visiting the zoo or aquarium with your family. Since then, the question of how they’re regulated has probably has never crossed your mind.
Obviously, there must be a set of minimum requirements that zoos and aquariums need to operate within to exist. But how can you, as a much more animal welfare-conscious adult, choose to visit businesses that provide the best possible care for their exhibited species?
Working towards national standards for the public exhibition of animals
All Australian states and territories have a regulating body for exhibiting animals and, as a baseline, all zoos and aquariums must be licensed by their state or territory government to operate.
Mark Smith, Zoos South Australia’s (Zoos SA) Manager for Conservation, Research and Animal Welfare, says in SA the regulating body is the Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA).
“There’s one set of guidelines for native Australian animals and one set of guidelines for exotic animals. There may also be special, even more strict provisions for some species,” explains Smith.
Australia implemented the first national standards and guidelines only in 2019 when the federal government’s Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS) brought together key stakeholders to create The Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Exhibited Animals.
It was endorsed in April 2019 by the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum (AGMIN) and provides a basis for state and territory governments to develop and implement consistent legislation and enforcement – all of which are in different stages of implementation currently.
The guidelines, as explained on the website, seek to: ”… promote humane and respectful treatment of animals used for exhibition purposes; inform all people responsible for the care and management of exhibited animals about their responsibilities; and set a minimum industry standard by defining acceptable management practices for animals used for exhibition purposes.”
The standards and guidelines: “… considered current scientific animal welfare knowledge, recommended industry practice and community expectations.”
But not everyone believes that zoos and aquariums should exist in the first place.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Australia’s Senior Communications Advisor Emily Rice told Cosmos: “Even under the best circumstances, it’s impossible for facilities that use animals for entertainment to meet all the unique environmental, nutritional, climatic, and social needs of the various species they hold captive, especially when you consider that enclosures in these facilities are on average 100 times smaller than the minimum natural range of the animals they confine.
“At the end of the day, the paying public can go home, but captive animals are stuck as living exhibits and crowd-pulling attractions until the day they die, often thousands of miles away from where they truly belong.”
Some zoos and aquariums choose to undertake further accreditation
The Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia (ZAA), the peak body for zoos and aquariums, helps coordinate collaboration within Australasia and with other regional associations.
At present ZAA has 95 members – 70 of which are in Australia, the rest in New Zealand, and one member in Papua New Guinea – that care for roughly 2,500 species in total.
It’s a requirement of membership to be accredited by ZAA, but why would you become accredited when you could simply comply with the minimum animal welfare standards?
According to Nicolas de Graaff, Director of Accreditation and Animal Welfare Assessment at ZAA, ZAA accreditation goes beyond simply preventing poor welfare by minimising negative experiences.
Animals cannot be completely ‘free’ of having negative experiences, as they exist to to survive and manage priorities – for instance, you won’t realise it’s time to eat unless you start to feel hungry. But significant negative experiences that go beyond what the animal can manage causes poor welfare, because the overriding negative experience prevents their ability to focus on things that would be pleasurable or rewarding.
“The science has identified that animals are also capable of having positive experiences. In a biological sense, you can actually detect these experiences are occurring in the brain through neuroscience,” says de Graaff.
“So, what we’re doing in our program is we’re focusing more on confirming that animals under our care are having those positive experiences, while at the same time ensuring negative experiences are minimised and that’s why we call it ‘positive welfare’.”
In practice, that could look like providing sufficient food to appropriately minimise hunger (neutral welfare) and at the same time providing a diet that the animal finds pleasurable or rewarding – like tasty and nutritious food – as well as providing the animal with opportunities to have positive experiences (positive welfare).
What does the accreditation process involve?
ZAA members complete a self-assessment, which de Graaff says is critical because they know their animals best.
“I couldn’t be an expert on all species. And a lot of the information is actually relevant to the individual animal’s life experience,” he says.
The ZAA Welfare Assessment Tool is based on the Five Domains Model – a science-based model to assess animal welfare. This includes the four physical domains – nutrition, environment, health, and behaviour – which all give rise to experiences that contribute to the fifth domain: mental state.
“We’re assessing the animal using the Five Domains to have an informed idea about its mental experiences, because we can’t assess these experiences directly. So, we need to rely on other observable measures to determine what’s going on,” de Graaff explains.
ZAA Member zoos and aquariums are assessed every three years to retain their accreditation status. In the second three-year cycle, ZAA introduced the Desktop Assessment Tool, which assesses a member’s policies and procedures to determine if it has capacity to continue to promote positive welfare.
“We also want to make sure that if something changes over the next three years of accreditation that the organisation can recognise a change, that could negatively affect the animals’ welfare, and that it has the capacity to bring the animal’s welfare back into a positive state,” says de Graaff.
In 2021, new elements were added to the assessment process in the areas of biosecurity, conservation, sustainability, and safety. These new elements confirm that certain safety requirements are in place when managing potentially dangerous animals, and that regular internal reviews are undertaken to identify and take action to address biosecurity risks. Members also must demonstrate they are working to minimise business impact to the environment and must inform ZAA of the many ways they work toward conservation.
ZAA then go through all of the information provided and validate it, ensuring that the assessment was conducted appropriately. Finally, they finish the review with a site visit to confirm that the outcome of the report aligns with what’s seen on site, for animals both included in the assessment and not.
What does welfare assessment look like from the member’s perspective?
To make the accreditation process feasible, a representative sample of the entire population of the zoo is assessed. But some members have found the framework so empowering that they also choose to complete their own internal assessments regularly and comprehensively.
“We do an assessment every year for every exhibited animal,” emphasises Smith. “Zoos SA has a full time animal welfare officer, Justine Partoon, who leads the effort.”
Zoos SA also has a nutritionist on staff who reviews the diet of the animals at both Monarto Safari Park and Adelaide Zoo; they assess not just whether the food is nutritionally appropriate, but whether it has the right texture and consistency suitable for the animal’s dentition or for the way in which the animal digests its food.
“Environmentally, we do our utmost to provide appropriate substrate, climbing structures, and complexity of environment, to imitate what they would find in the wild. And importantly, that it has the right thermal properties so that it’s not too cold or too hot,” says Smith.
They also provide enrichment to increase the complexity of the environment as a proxy for the kind of environment that the animal would encounter in the wild.
“It might be, for example, a puzzle box or something that you have placed food in, or objects that the animal can manipulate. And that really engages the animal cognitively,” Smith adds.
So, enrichment provides a bridge between the environment and behaviour, giving the animal the opportunity to express the full range of its behavioural repertoire.
But while those that choose to visit zoos and aquariums want to know that the animals are in a state of positive animal welfare, there isn’t necessarily an awareness of the ZAA accreditation process.
ZAA’s annual survey of Australian and New Zealand community beliefs towards zoos and aquariums found that 74% of those surveyed had a concern for the welfare of animals in zoos and aquariums. Of those people, 71% liked the prospect of an accreditation program, but only 13% were already aware that such a program exists.
RSPCA Australia Chief Science Officer Dr Suzanne Fowler told Cosmos: “We are aware that the ZAA accreditation program is specifically focused on animal welfare and is making progress in the assessment of animal welfare. The program is based on the Five Domains, which is the modern method for assessing animal welfare and provides a strong basis for the program.
“There are challenges with managing animals in a zoo environment and we welcome independent accreditation and assessment of zoos to specifically address these challenges.”
Originally published by Cosmos as How do we ensure animals in zoos have the best possible life?
Imma Perfetto is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Science Communication from the University of Adelaide.