Because of Lincoln Park Zoo, and guests like you
At Farm-in-the-Zoo, guests can find a few zoo favorites sharing a habitat with the chickens: guest engagement, animal care, and science. These elements form the backbone of decisions at Lincoln Park Zoo, but few spaces on grounds encapsulate the spirit quite like the chicken yard—where guests don’t just learn about animal care; they help make it happen.
“Using science, we were able to create a program that’s really the best of both worlds,” says senior animal welfare scientist Katie Cronin, Ph.D. “The science showed that many chickens preferred to be fed by guests when they had the choice, opting in to care provided by the guests and allowing a meaningful interaction to take place.”
Welcome to the Feed the Chickens program, designed to foster a message of care and stewardship to guests while setting the stage for great animal welfare. Inspired by a similar program at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, Illinois, and piloted at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2019, the program is ready to resume when guests can return to Farm-in-the-Zoo.
Farm-in-the-Zoo has always connected guests with nature through special programming, although the strategy has evolved over time. In years past, visitors to the chicken yard, for example, could briefly touch a chicken while learning about the species. Thanks to the program, smiling guests were almost as common as the chickens.
But in order to further enhance animal welfare, the zoo revamped all touch-based programming across the zoo in 2019 so that guests could instead provide care directly to the animals.
The decision benefitted the animals but presented a new challenge to the zoo’s Learning team, which was tasked with developing new programs.
“We asked ourselves how we could tweak the programs to provide an emotional guest-animal connection that benefits both parties,” says Director of Guest Engagement Amanda Berlinski. “By doing this effectively, we could create empathy for animals in nature, which increases the chances that guests will make decisions that protect wildlife.”
So far, anecdotal evidence suggests a resounding success for both the zoo and guests. Both Berlinski and Curator of Mammals Mike Murray, who over – sees Farm-in-the-Zoo, have witnessed mesmerized guests, often children, spending far more time in the space than ever before. And according to Murray, his 4-year-old son still talks about his experience during the pilot program more than a year later.
“Through this program, we are able to give people a sneak peek into what it’s like to care for these animals,” says Murray. “It’s a small sneak peek, but it can make a big impact.”
The zoo’s other care-driven programs are Groom the Goats and Feed the Cows, with others on the horizon.
In order to enhance animal welfare, zoo staff designed a program that provides the animals with the choice to participate or opt out, allows the animals to remain in their enclosure without separation from their conspecifics, and does not involve physical contact between the guests and animals.
The result: from outside the chicken habitat, guests use feeder sticks to offer small bowls of seed to the chickens through a fence at one side of the enclosure.
One important aspect of the Feed a Chicken program, according to Murray, is that the chickens have access to more than enough food even without approaching guests. Plus, since the program takes place on only one side of their habitat, the uninterested chickens have plenty of space to ignore their visitors.
“As a care team, we want to make sure the animals have choice in what they do and how they interact with guests,” says Murray. “If a chicken doesn’t want anything to do with this, then that’s 100 percent okay, and it’s even encouraged. The experience for the guests is almost secondary. Luckily, these chickens find it very reinforcing, so it’s not something we have to choose between.”
In typical Lincoln Park Zoo fashion, science has the final say when it comes to animal care: Animal Welfare Science Program staff continuously evaluate and enhance the experiences of animals at the zoo, especially when introducing a new element, like the Feed a Chicken program, to their routine.
Using ZooMonitor, the behavior monitoring app created by Lincoln Park Zoo, animal welfare research intern Maggie Ramont evaluated the welfare of the chickens during the program’s pilot season, focusing primarily on their behavior to infer their welfare and identify any changes associated with the new experience. According to Cronin, changes in certain chicken behaviors, such as more rolling on the ground to clean their feathers, would indicate enhanced welfare while others, such as more aggression, would indicate a decrease in welfare.
To isolate the effects of the program on behavioral changes, they compared the chickens’ behavior before, during, and after each program to the same time on days when the program was not offered. They also considered how the chickens used their space: if chickens were not comfortable with the guests, they should have avoided the feeding area as guest numbers increased, and vice versa.
“We expected that certain elements of the program—like the animals remaining in their habitat and giving them the choice of whether or not to participate—should safeguard animal welfare, but we didn’t take that for granted,” says Cronin. “We relied on a scientific approach to draw conclusions about their welfare.”
The results: the chickens exercised choice. Some chose to continue with their day as usual in the habitat, while most chose to eat from the feeder sticks when the program was offered. Comparing observations between program and non-program days showed that their behavior didn’t change in a way that suggested their welfare was compromised. Taken as a whole, the data indicate a positive experience for the chickens that builds on the great welfare the chickens were already experiencing.
“The reaction from guests has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Berlinski,” but knowing that the animals also benefit is truly special.”
To learn more about animal care and welfare at Lincoln Park Zoo, visit lpzoo.org/welfare.