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Identifying and understanding zoo animal needs

Zoo animal science includes the systematic collection of information about behaviour, physiology, genetics and nutritional and habitat needs, both in the wild (in situ) and in the captive environment (ex-situ). The zoo community has helped to lead the way in research on animals’ husbandry needs, but there are still many aspects of zoo animal care that requires further research. The aim is to ensure that zoo animals not only do not suffer poor welfare, but also that they are provided with appropriate experiences, opportunities and choices that enhance the quality of their life. What matters to an animal depends on the species as well as the individual, and can include the need for refuges or shelters, social housing, complexity and choice as well as provision of adequate nutrition and environmental conditions such as temperature, noise levels, and for aquatic organism’s water quality. This is especially important given the long periods of time that animals are kept in zoos.

The task is not a small one; even for a species such as the Iberian ibex (or wild goat) that is closely related to the commonly kept domestic goat - we still know comparatively little about its biology or needs. In such cases decisions are often based on what is thought to be best practice for their closest domestic equivalent. For species of animals that are adapted to live in very specialised, remote and/or hard to access environments, and whose needs and biology have been very little studied – the challenges of keeping them can be enormous. Just keeping such species alive in captivity has traditionally been regarded as a success - especially if they then breed. For this reason, scientists writing about the care of zoo animals have referred to it still as more of an art than one based on evidence (1).   Picture: Iberian Ibex_wikicomms_Juan lacruz.jpg

For many years UFAW has included the welfare of wild animals within the scope of its work.  UFAW has supported research seeking to further understand zoo animals and their needs and has also published many papers in the journal Animal Welfare to disseminate important findings in this area. The challenges of keeping zoo animals are also discussed in the following books, published as part of the UFAW/Wiley Animal Welfare series: Physiology and behaviour of animal suffering (2) and Understanding Animal Welfare (3).


  • Melfi VA. There are big gaps in our knowledge, and thus approach, to zoo animal welfare: a case for evidence-based zoo animal management. 2009; Zoo Biol 28: 574–588. doi: 10.1002/zoo.20288 PMID: 19876912
  • Gregory NG. Physiology and behaviour of animal suffering. UFAW Animal Welfare Series. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford. 268pp. ISBN 0 632 06468 4.
  • Fraser D. Understanding Animal Welfare: The Science in its Cultural Context. UFAW Animal Welfare Series. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Oxford. 324pp. ISBN 978 1 4051 3695 2.

Selected papers on zoo animal needs published in the UFAW Journal, Animal Welfare:

Troxell-Smith SM, Whelan CJ, Magle SB, Brown JS. 2017. Zoo foraging ecology: development and assessment of a welfare tool for captive animals. Animal Welfare, 26(3): pp 265-275. UFAW.

Whitham JC and Miller LJ. 2016. Using technology to monitor and improve zoo animal welfare. Animal Welfare, 25(4): pp 295-409. UFAW.

Rose PR, Croft DP. 2015. The potential of Social Network Analysis as a tool for the management of zoo animals. Animal Welfare, 24(2): pp 123-138. UFAW.

Gurusamy V, Tribe A, and Philips CJC. 2014. Identification of major welfare issues for captive elephant husbandry by stakeholders. Animal Welfare, 23(1): 11-24. UFAW.

Tetley CJ, and O'Hara SJ. 2012. Ratings of animal personality as a tool for improving the breeding, management and welfare of zoo animals. Animal Welfare, 21(4): 463-476. UFAW.

Menargues A, Urios V and Mauri M. 2008. Welfare assessment of captive Asian elephants (Elephus maximus) and Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) using salivary cortisol measurement. Animal Welfare, 17(3): 305-312. UFAW.

Young RJ and Cipreste CF. 2004. Applying animal learning theory: training captive animals to comply with veterinary and husbandry procedures. Animal Welfare, 13(2): 225-232. UFAW.

Robinson MH. 1998. Enriching the lives of zoo animals, and their welfare: where research can be fundamental. Animal Welfare, 7(2): 151-175. UFAW.

Veasey JS, Waran NK, Young RJ. 1996. On comparing the behaviour of zoo housed animals with wild conspecifics as a welfare indicator, using the giraffe (Giraffa camelopadalis) as a model. Animal Welfare, 5(2): 139-153.

Sandoe P, Simonsen HB. 1992. Assessing animal welfare: where does science end and philosophy begin? Animal Welfare, 1(4): 257-267. UFAW.