Changing the Approach to Caring for Ambassador Animals

March 29, 2019

Two African penguins near guests at Malott Family Penguin Encounter

Here at Lincoln Park Zoo, we believe in data-informed decision-making and putting animal welfare first. After evaluating several of our programs over the last few years with the help of the Animal Welfare Science Program and the Animal Care and Learning departments, the zoo is making “animal-first” changes to programming that involves ambassador animals.

“Animal-first” is an approach where various factors are considered: Does the animal have choice? Does the animal have control? Can the animal remain the comfort of its habitat? Is the program to the animals’ benefit? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions, that is an animal-first program. Moving forward, the zoo has committed to this approach for all ambassador animal programs and will be phasing out any program that does not meet these criteria.

First, the zoo will be ending its Meet an Animal program April 1 at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House and Farm-in-the-Zoo, which involved animals leaving their habitats and enabled guests to touch or interact with various animals, such as skinks, snakes, turtles, armadillos, rabbits, and chickens.

“This may seem like a directional shift for the zoo, but these changes have been happening for the last several decades,” says Vice President of Animal Care and Horticulture Maureen Leahy. “Over the years, we have transitioned toward animal-first programming, such as with the creation of Malott Family Penguin Encounters.”

During Penguin Encounters, participants enter a portion of Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove and the penguins have the choice whether or not to join the encounter. The animals are not transported out of their habitats and guests do not touch the penguins–though that doesn’t always stop the penguins from waddling up to the human participants! Since the inception of Penguin Encounters, Animal Welfare Science Program scientists have compared penguin behavior on days with and without the offering to understand how this experience impacts the penguins.

“What we found is that the Penguin Encounters had a neutral or even positive effect on welfare—the penguins showed no behavioral signs of stress, and those who chose to participate spent more time playing, one indicator of good welfare,” says Senior Animal Welfare Scientist Katie Cronin, Ph.D. “Considering these results with past studies, we are confident that the ability for the penguins to choose each day whether or not to participate in the encounters is a key factor in the positive impact of the program on penguin welfare and we are excited to apply this knowledge to future programs with additional species.”

With this knowledge and data, the zoo will be making a few modifications to existing programs, such as Greet the Goats, where the goats are able to retreat to their indoor spaces, and to Pony Grooming, in which the ponies will remain in their habitat but can choose to interact with the public for grooming.

“Previously, these programs placed an emphasis on people touching or doing something to the animals to fuel connection,” says Vice President of Learning and Community Engagement Dana Murphy. “Now, these animal-first programs place an emphasis on caring for the animals and provide benefits to the animals through voluntary grooming, providing diet items, or enrichment opportunities.

“In addition to animal welfare, we study empathy for animals and the impacts on guest learning and takeaways. We found that we can create interactive experiences, that don’t necessarily include directly touching an animal or removing it from its habitat, to facilitate guests’ connections with animals. We are committed to creating meaningful wildlife experiences to help people develop caring attitudes about the animals that share this Earth with us.”

The zoo is currently looking to pilot and build new programs, such as Feed the Chickens, in the coming months that will continue to be evaluated and enhanced by the Animal Welfare Science Program and the Animal Care and Learning departments.