Made in the Shade

August 5, 2020

As the afternoon sun hits me through my west facing window, my air conditioner goes into overdrive and I dutifully move to lower my blinds as part of my daily routine. Many of us take this level of environmental control for granted. Of course, as I look over and see my cat stretched out in a sun patch on the floor, I am reminded that my comfort zone may not be shared by all (and grateful she doesn’t control the thermostat). Although non-human animals are not able to control their environments in the same way as us, they can still make meaningful choices that can give us insights into their welfare and comfort.

Scientists in the zoo’s Animal Welfare Science Program often consider the choices animals make to understand animals’ needs and comfort. Using data from the volunteer-based ZooMonitor program, we study animal behavior and how the animals use the space in their habitats. During warm summer months, one important behavior we monitor is shade-seeking. Although different animals have many different behavioral responses to cool off during the summer, including decreased activity, adjusting body postures, and panting, seeking cool shaded areas is common across many species.

Over the last several years, the zoo’s welfare science team has worked to document shade availability in the zoo’s outdoor habitats. Through this multi-year effort, we’ve found shade can vary widely, both between habitats and through time. While some habitats may have high levels of shade in the morning, these shaded areas may disappear as the sun moves throughout the day based on the locations of trees and buildings. Based on these data, we’ve prioritized adding shade structures for several habitats to enhance the available shade for animals. But, we don’t stop there! Next, we again use ZooMonitor data to evaluate whether the added shade has the intended impact – that the animals use it. This is another example of the “evaluate and enhance cycle” that is key to the Animal Welfare Science Program’s approach to animal welfare.

Adding Shade for Takins

Using this combined approach, shade structures were added to the Sichuan takin habitats in the Camel and Zebra Area at the south end of the zoo. Takin, native to mountainous regions of China and bordering regions, are cold adapted and have thick fur and large bodies to keep them warm. Shade data on the takin habitat at Lincoln Park Zoo had indicated limited shade availability during summer months. Before installing a shade sail cloth over the takin habitat, we incorporated the ZooMonitor behavior data to understand how the takin used their space. Our space use data highlighted a portion of their habitat that was utilized during cooler months but appeared to be avoided during warmer summer months, potentially because of a lack of shade (yellow rectangle in image below). So, that’s where we put the shade sail. With the shade sail installed, the shade available to the takin increased by 7% across the habitat and we’ve observed all takin using those shaded spaces under the shade sail.

Heat maps from the ZooMonitor program showing space use of the three Sichuan takin at Lincoln Park Zoo. Red areas indicated frequently used spaces. The shade sail addition to the habitat is shown as a yellow rectangle in B.

We have also applied this data-driven approach to the design of shade and other cooling features in our new lion habitat at Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Using data from the previous lion pride, we identified several habitat features that were frequently utilized during winter and summer months. Based on this, we’ve incorporated multiple large kopje rocks, a feature found to be frequently used for sunbathing during cold winter months and maximized shaded space throughout the habitat. In addition, we’ve incorporated vents for heating and cooling throughout the habitat. We are excited for the lions to return to see how they use their new space!

Proposed habitat design of the Pepper Family Wildlife Center by Goettsch Partners, Inc.

More details of this study can be found in the journal Animals. This article was authored by myself, Katie Cronin, Ph.D., Senior Animal Welfare Scientist, and Natasha Wierzal, former ZooMonitor Research Coordinator.

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