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Partnering for animal wellness

UNF student at the zoo hear giraffes

Universities and zoos work well together. Just ask the keepers at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens charged with caring for the animals and the graduate students at the University of North Florida who conduct behavioral research to help them improve animal care.

Since 2015, UNF and the Zoo have partnered to improve the quality of life for the gorillas, the jaguars, the giraffes and the many other animals who call the Zoo home. As the partnership expands, students benefit — and so do the animals.

When gorillas tackle touch screens
Madini, a 23-year-old female gorilla, ventured over to a wire mesh opening in the Zoo’s African Forest habitat, where the keepers had attached a special computer. From her vantage point, Madini faced a white screen with two large, black dots. 

From inside the viewing area, UNF alumna Megan Morris, ‘18, an animal behavior and wellness specialist at the Zoo, watched to see if Madini would press one dot and then the other to receive a treat dispensed by the machine. The gorilla succeeded. After repeating the task many times, Madini allowed her four-year-old daughter, Patty, to take over.

The device is a cognitive work station or “Think Pod,” a sophisticated instrument with software that introduces concepts step by step. 

“It’s all about giving the animals some control over their environment,” said Morris, who came to UNF because of its partnership with the Zoo and the chance to conduct research on animal behavior. She was one of the first students in the program, which she began while working on her Master of Science in psychological science. When she graduated, Morris was hired at the Zoo to conduct research, while also assisting other UNF grad students. 

“This line of computer research is very new,” Morris said. “We are just in the beginning stages of this long-term research project.” Fast forwarding far into the future, a hope is that someday apes may be able to choose a picture of a piece of fruit on the screen, and then have their selection handed to them. Yet, getting to that choice requires mastering a series of skills, so the animals can understand there is an outcome to their selection. After first learning how to touch the screen, the animals progress to choosing two dots, then three, then a certain order of dots by color, then a sequence of numbers to introduce ranking. Eventually, they will learn to differentiate images and be able to make choices. 

Through it all, the key is to maintain a positive experience for the animals, according to Valerie Segura, the Zoo’s curator of wildlife wellness and behavioral science. “The reason we will spend so much time building skills is that we do not want to frustrate the animals in any way,” Segura said. “The most powerful part of this device is that eventually it will allow the animals to communicate their preferences and wants and needs to us, which we believe will improve their lives and wellness. It will just take a lot of steps to get there, but it’s worth it.”

Segura and Morris watched together as young Patty quickly touched both dots and received her reward, again and again. The youngster wasted no time pressing the dots, enjoying the activity and earning her special treat as a reward.

Calming a big cat with enrichment
A jaguar named Saban, 4 years old at the time, was pacing in his Zoo habitat. Since the repetitive behavior can sometimes be an indicator of stress, his keepers were looking for answers as to what was triggering the action.

Morris was a UNF graduate student at the time in fall 2017 and ready to develop her research project. She worked with Segura to design a method of testing. “We did a functional behavior assessment to see what environmental variables might be triggering this behavior,” Morris said. “We did some preliminary data collection using video footage as well as surveying those who care for the animals.” 

Morris explained that the keepers initially had moved Saban to a night schedule on the exhibit because they thought visitor traffic might be disturbing him. They also thought that more behavior-specific stimulation could possibly decrease instances of pacing. As part of the study, Morris introduced a zip line and more complex “toys” to evoke behaviors typical of his species — like stalking and jumping, similar to jaguar hunting behaviors.

At the end of the 10-week study, after testing various hypotheses, Morris was able to show that visitors were not the problem, and the jaguar paced less when he was on exhibit during the day and off-exhibit at night. She also found that Saban paced less when she added stimulation and enrichment to the habitat. 

For Saban, the added enrichment worked. “We were able to provide recommendations to the care staff to make evidence-based changes in care,” Morris said. “If we hadn’t, we would have gone back to the drawing board and started over. We continue to monitor Saban and make changes when needed, because we are always looking to improve animal wellness.”

When giraffes won’t feed together
One of the smallest female giraffes is also the oldest. Her name is Spock, and she was born at the Zoo 17 years ago. In giraffe hierarchy, despite her size, Spock is the most central individual within the habitat, according to Fatima Ramis, a graduate biology student at UNF.

“She tends to connect the network socially because she receives a lot of interactions from the others, but Spock does not tend to feed with others,” said Ramis, explaining that social and feeding behaviors are not always the same.

Ramis, who plans to graduate this summer, has spent hundreds of hours observing the behavior of the giraffes, the world’s tallest mammals, within the habitat and in particular at the Zoo’s elevated viewing platform, where visitors hand feed wax myrtle leaves to the animals. Though the eight giraffes graze freely in their 2.5-acre area, designed to look like an African savanna, space is at a premium at the overlook, so Ramis has seen giraffes either waiting behind or being displaced by another.

“Some of the giraffes who seem to like to feed together will approach each other at the feeding station, but they generally won’t approach Spock, perhaps because they have learned over time that she prefers to eat alone, both on exhibit and at the platform,” she said. “One part of my project is looking at whether you can predict behaviors at the feeding station based on exhibit interactions. The second component has more to do with how much space should you allow in order to have a more dynamic or effective feeding station.”

As part of the research, Ramis also observed the feeding station at the Brevard Zoo, which has a different configuration and larger size, to see if adding space might change how the giraffes interact. The question remains unanswered for now, as Ramis compiles the data.

Throughout the project she has relied on support from both sides, UNF and the Zoo, making it a collaborative effort that she believes works well for students.

“This partnership between UNF and the Zoo is unique,” she said. “If you want to do animal welfare research, this is the place to be. In the end, I am hopeful that my research will be able to inform management practices when the Zoo considers rebuilding the giraffe habitat.”

Collaboration creates new possibilities
Before enrolling at UNF, both Morris and Ramis learned of the graduate program and partnership from researcher and professor Dr. Terry Maple, well-known within the zoo community as a lifelong advocate of animal wellness. Maple joined the Jacksonville Zoo in 2013 as the director of wellness and professor in residence, and he soon worked with Dr. George Rainbolt, the dean of UNF’s College of Arts and Sciences, to create a partnership. 

This is not the first such partnership Maple has developed during his career. In fact, he believes all zoos should be partnering with universities. “From my point of view, the zoo gets the expertise of professors and the eagerness, motivation and intelligence of students,” Maple said. “When you put those things together, it always has good results, and we get partners who can help us advance our ideas within the zoo.”

There are many benefits for UNF as well. Rainbolt said the generosity of Zoo administrators has opened up a world of possibilities for students. “It’s really an exciting partnership because it allows the students to use the amazing facilities at the Zoo for classroom experiences as well as providing research opportunities with species we simply cannot house here on campus,” Rainbolt said. 

Each year, the Zoo provides a paid graduate fellowship for the students. Four students have participated in the program to date, and the Zoo recently guaranteed two additional years of funding for two new students: one in biology and one in psychology.

The partnership also allows for an exchange of ideas and expertise. Segura is co-teaching an Experimental Analysis of Behavior as an adjunct in the psychology department with visiting professor Dr. Lindsay Mahovetz. The class began in Spring 2019. In addition, the College recently hired Dr. Greg Kohn, who will begin at UNF in August. Kohn, a professor in comparative psychology, will teach several core courses at UNF during the academic year and then will be funded by the Zoo to conduct research over the summers. In his current research, Kohn studies the developmental origins and consequences of individual differences in social behavior and social relationships in animals.

As the partnership expands, plans also are in the works for classes to meet at the Zoo. A lecture series is already underway, bringing Zoo personnel to speak at UNF and professors to the Zoo. Last fall, Executive Director Tony Vecchio spoke to students and faculty about how the Zoo is moving into the future with a focus on animal wellness initiatives. He believes the collaboration with the University will help the Zoo accomplish its mission.

“We are so thrilled with the partnership,” Vecchio said. “We have been so pleased with the quality of the students, the enthusiasm of the faculty and the willingness of the administration to work with us.”

What lies ahead is not yet defined, but Vecchio would prefer brainstorming new ideas rather than adhering to preconceived plans. “In my mind, a partnership is two organizations coming together and creating things that neither one of them could create by themselves,” Vecchio said. “And it’s that creation piece that I like so much. It’s really exciting to see the potential out there and to know that we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”