Evidence Based Animal Care: A Conversation with Lance Miller, Senior Director of Animal Welfare Rese

For the past 80 years, the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo has been a leader in the zoo field. One of the things that makes Brookfield Zoo special is its focus on research and animal science. This commitment is shown in the Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare, which is doing cutting-edge research into the wellbeing of animals. One of the leaders of the Center is Dr. Lance Miller, one of the most well-respected behaviorists in the zoo field. Here is his story.

@ Lance Miller

Miller’s career began in the education department at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The park had only opened a few months before. “It was really fun being part of a relatively new organization,” Miller remarked. As a tourist attraction and theme park, Animal Kingdom reaches a very broad and diverse audience impossible at other zoos. “You don’t have the same people coming back every year but what’s nice about Animal Kingdom is the number of people from all over the world you can impact,” he said. Soon Miller would change from the education department to working in research. “When I was in the education department, I volunteered on weekends to assist a graduate student on bottlenose dolphin research,” Miller said. “Then a position opened up in the research department at Disney. I started off as a research associate and worked up to research manager. I was split 50/50 between two research aspects - one was research biology on animals at the park. The other was conservation biology studying animals out in the field.” His major field project was looking at nesting patterns of sea turtles on the Florida coast.

@ Disney

After getting his PhD, Lance Miller joined the staff at San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research working in behavioral biology. “I started off doing a program on reproduction and behavior of Somali wild ass,” he said. “Then I worked with a whole bunch of people at San Diego to build an animal welfare research program.” The position turned out to be a great opportunity for Miller. “I got to work with dedicated animal care staff at the zoo and safari park who looked at environmental enrichment and social factors to figure out how we could continuously improve the lives of animals at the zoo and park.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“One study looked at bonobos and found decreased regurgitation and reingestion when we moved two animals from the group at the zoo to the safari park, even though we kept the diet and management the same,” Miller noted. “We believe it was social related- the more affiliative behavior you see, the less regurgitation while the more aggression you see, the more regurgitation. We also did a lot of enrichment studies like preference studies with cheetahs to find out which objects they preferred. We wanted to know which enrichments worked with different species. We wanted to think about the natural history of animals and tailor enrichments to that natural history to provide them opportunities to engage in behaviors they’re motivated to perform.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

In 2014, Lance Miller was hired as the Chicago Zoological Society’s Senior Director of Animal Welfare Research. It gave him not only the opportunity to run a program but also to return to his home town zoo. One thing that stuck out to Miller about Brookfield Zoo was how the animal care specialists and curators initiated a lot of research. Ever since the days of the late George Rabb’s tenure as director, the zoo has put a large emphasis on staff writing papers and engaging in animal behavior research. “In 2008, the Chicago Zoological Society created the Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare,” Miller elaborated. “It’s a philosophy with the goal of animal care, veterinary services, and research working together to use evidence to drive the way they care for animals at Brookfield Zoo rather than a physical structure. We use an evidence-based approach.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

“From a behavior standpoint, we’re trying to validate behavior diversity as an indicator of positive animal welfare,” Lance Miller continued. “Working with colleagues from San Diego, we published a paper looking at the behavior diversity of cheetahs and found an inverse relationship between behavioral diversity and fecal glucocorticoid metabolites. We hope we’re starting to validate behavioral diversity as a sign of positive welfare. Markers of autonomic nervous system activity are also a possible indicator of positive welfare. There’s a continued science behind animal welfare.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

To run the program effectively, the animal welfare team collaborates closely with the curators at Brookfield Zoo. “It’s all about building trust and we’re almost like a research consultant to the curators,” Miller explained. “The curators are ultimately the ones making decisions and we’re providing information to help them with those decisions.” This collaboration has created a number of breakthroughs in animal care. “We published a manuscript on stereotypic behavior in okapi and found we could significantly reduce stereotypic behavior by reducing views of other okapi,” Miller stated. “Okapi are a solitary species who wouldn’t see each other 24 hours a day so removing that view was able to improve behavior.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

A major focus of the animal welfare research has been on the zoo’s bottlenose dolphins. “We also working with University of Michigan on validating a digital recording tag for bottlenose dolphins” Miller remarked. “It’s a little device that suction cups onto the back of the dolphin and lets us automatically record their behavior. “ The zoo is one of only two in the United States to house bottlenose dolphins. “The dolphins at the zoo are great,” Miller added. “They have amazing behavioral diversity.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

In 2015, Lance Miller and his team published a study on the zoo’s gorillas. “What we found was by installing automatic feeders that provided different treats and scents the activity levels of the gorillas more than doubled. It also doubled their foraging time,” he explained. “With these feeders, we can better replicate the behavior of wild gorillas. Our animal care staff has done similar things with grizzly bears and polar bears.” Miller noted the key to positive behavior for animals in zoos is dynamic spaces, enrichment and training. “It’s all about designing dynamic habitats and providing opportunities for the animals to engage in the behaviors they’re motivated to perform,” he added.

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

Some examples of dynamic exhibits encouraging natural behaviors at Brookfield Zoo Miller made are located in the Hamill Family Play Zoo “The red pandas have a great habitat with a tree installed with feeders,” he commented. “The ring tailed lemur habitat is also dynamic as it has an automatic tree with doors programed to open and close at different times, which creates great foraging opportunities.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

Lance Miller strongly believes “animal welfare science is about looking to validate positive indicators of welfare to indicate what experiences are positive for animals.” “It’s all about finding ways to automatically code behavior so we can monitor more species with less time and have more information to make decisions,” he elaborated. “It’s about working with animal programs and taking a holistic approach. We’re all working together to create an evidence-based approach to animal welfare. We’re also teaching an AZA professional development course called Animal Welfare: Evidence Based Management to get animal care staff to use an evidence-based approach to animal welfare.” He recognized a number of other zoos with great animal welfare programs including but not limited to the Detroit Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Philadelphia Zoo and Toledo Zoo.

@ Brookfield Zoo

To explain the value of an evidence based approach, Miller illustrated how there is the art of animal care and the science of animal care. “Traditionally animal care was more of an art form than a science,” he stated. “It’s transitioned to being more of a science. Science is something that can be measured while the art is more of a holistic observed knowledge. The science of animal care should complement the art that’s been going on for decades. When you think about animal care staff, they have a wealth of knowledge from things they observe and traditionally made decisions based on that knowledge. Now we can use science to find evidence to support that decision.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

The Chicago Zoological Society’s Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare at Brookfield Zoo is currently developing an online enrichment program. “This online application would help animal care staff figure out which enrichment would help optimize behavioral diversity,” Lance Miller explained. “It would look at behaviors recorded through short observations and find which enrichment should be provided to provide opportunities for the behaviors they’re motivated to perform. Timing, type of enrichment and schedule should be considered in optimizing animal behavioral diversity.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Recently, Brookfield Zoo became one of very few zoos to house pangolins and the only one to have them on exhibit. “I’m assisting our curator of mammals with a management survey on pangolins,” Miller remarked. “We’re trying to figure out the best ways to manage these animals under professional care.” Another initiative of Miller’s is to spread the animal welfare knowledge gained through the research. “Professional developments and symposiums can help spread the knowledge,” Miller commented “We have colleagues coming from all over the world to our third annual symposium on animal welfare at Brookfield Zoo. “

@ Brookfield Zoo

“There are three main reasons why zoos should focus on animal welfare,” Lance Miller reflected. “First, we have an ethical responsibility to take the highest care of our animals. Second, it benefits conservation. The link between conservation and reproduction can ensure we have animals for future generations of zoo visitors to observe. Third, visitors want to see animals engaged in a diversity of natural behaviors. They want to see active animals. Animal welfare is not only good for the animals but, when visitors see active animals, they have a better experience and want to become more involved in conservation.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Miller’s research helps enable Brookfield Zoo to provide some of the best animal care in the world. “Our animal care staff work hard to make sure our animals have the best life possible,” he elaborated. “They create dynamic experiences so the animals are engaged in those natural behaviors. We’re working to do new dynamic things based on the most recent science. Brookfield Zoo was my hometown zoo so working here means a lot to me. I love the philosophy of the different animal care departments working together.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Additionally, the Chicago Zoological Society is heavily involved in a number of conservation programs. “Our Sarasota bottlenose dolphin program is the longest running research program on dolphins anywhere in the world,” Miller said. “They’ve tracked the dolphins for multiple generations. Randy Wells heads up that program and they’ve done more for dolphins than anywhere else. Dr. Mike Adkesson is the head of the Punta San Juan conservation program, which examines the health and population trends of penguins as well as fur seals and sea lions. We also have one of the longest running okapi breeding programs in the world.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

Lance Miller sees animal welfare research, enrichment and behavioral training as key to the future of zoos. “It’s important to manage animals according to their natural history,” he remarked. “The way we look at enrichment programs is really important. Quite a few facilities are now taking a behavior based approach to environmental enrichment. Going through that process and basing it on the natural history of the species can lead to great welfare.”

“Validating positive indicators and figuring out how to continuously improve is the future,” he continued. “Absence of negative indicators of welfare doesn’t mean you have good welfare and we have to find ways to demonstrate animals as having positive welfare. I see zoos as finding new ways for visitors to engage in conservation.” Miller used the Hamill Family Wild Encounters as an example of how to successfully engage visitors. It features up close experiences such as a walkthrough wallaby and emu exhibit, a large walkthrough aviary, a red panda habitat and an alpaca habitat. “Research conducted at Brookfield Zoo has found up-close encounters with animals leads to a stronger connection and wanting to help protect them,” Miller noted. “Wild Encounters helps visitors get up close. There’s a diversity of species in that area with all the same idea of getting up close and personal. Animal care staff will also bring ambassador animals around to have additional experiences with the guests.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

“I have a job that allows me to give back, try to continuously improve the lives of animals in zoos and aquariums and inspire people to get involved in conservation,” Lance Miller concluded. “The hardest part of my job is making sure we have a sustainable program. However, the thing I’m proud of is having a career where I can give back to animals by providing them opportunities to thrive in their environment and inspiring visitors to be involved in conservation.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

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