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Prioritising animal welfare in zoos

GUEST BLOG Author: Karen Fifield - CEO of New Zealand's Wellington Zoo and Wild Welfare Trustee
Wild kea bird sits on top of a rock, Image © Tomas Sobek on Unsplash

Prioritising animal welfare in zoos – A Q&A with Karen Fifield

Wild Welfare trustee Karen Fifield has worked in zoos since 1991. Starting as the education manager at Taronga Conservation Society Australia, to becoming director for discovery and learning at Zoos Victoria, and now as Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Wellington Zoo. Karen is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit MNZM for Business and Animal Welfare and current New Zealand representative on the Zoo and Aquarium Australasia board. Along with numerous other achievements and accolades, Karen became a trustee of Wild Welfare earlier this year, and we consider ourselves very lucky to have her experience and dedication on our board. Here we ask Karen her thoughts on animal welfare in zoos and how she sees zoos evolving.

Thank you Karen for joining us in this Question & Answer session! Firstly…

As Chief Executive of Wellington Zoo, how do you ensure your staff make good animal welfare a priority in your zoo?

We are welfare-accredited through the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia (ZAA) and our Animal Science Manager is the Chair of the ZAA Standards and Accreditation Committee. The Wellington Zoo Animal Welfare Committee is chaired by me, as Chief Executive, which indicates how importantly I place animal welfare outcomes for us as a progressive zoo. We have internal staff and external representatives (from universities and government agencies) on this committee to challenge our thinking about animal welfare. Keeper grading progression includes questions and documentation about how they prioritise animal welfare and they are assessed on this. We have also developed a visitor engagement project which talks about how we ensure our animals are happy and we talk about this to our visitors.

Captive animal welfare concerns are increasingly being publicised in the international media. What do you think are the main challenges facing the global zoo community when it comes to providing good animal welfare?

I think one of the biggest issues is the wide ranging examples of zoos and aquariums – people get confused about what is right and what is wrong and often bad practice can be hidden behind an animal ‘show’. The real challenge is for progressive zoos to set the mark high, adhere to it, communicate it and celebrate it. We should not be afraid to sanction bad practice. The idea that including everyone ‘in the tent’ only works if those zoos are prepared to improve their standards of animal welfare – otherwise we are all brought down.

Zoos have a predominant conservation imperativeDo you think ex-situ conservation and captive animal welfare conflict or complement each other?

I think the delineation between ex-situ and in-situ conservation is artificial – a human construct. I prefer a ‘one plan’ approach where interventions occur as appropriate to save species. That way, animal welfare can be considered across the range of activities.

I think being compassionate and respectful of all animals is important even if the animal in question requires removal, such as pest species – this can be done without vilification of the animal.

What’s the most important message you want your visitors to take home after visiting Wellington Zoo, when it comes to animal care and welfare?

I would like our visitors to really love the animals and have a clear understanding of how they can help to protect the planet. That is why I believe that conservation is intrinsically linked with sustainable behaviour. By modelling those behaviours and having meaningful conversations with our community we can make progress together.

How would you like to see zoos and aquariums evolve over the next few decades?

I think we have many strategic decisions to make as a community of progressive zoos. I believe that community sentiment will mean that poor practice will not be accepted or condoned and we need to be ahead of that. We will manage our animals differently and we may make some decisions about the most appropriate species/animals to care for in zoos – that way we can more readily connect the ex-situ/in-situ conundrum in that we may support field conservation for some species but not house them in zoos. We will definitely need to engage our communities more with real behaviour-change initiatives – it will no longer be acceptable to jut have a species sign and pretend that is the end of visitor engagement. We need to bring our communities with us on the journey to protecting the planet by giving them the tools to do this.

Animal welfare is the heart of what progressive zoos should be about. Without the very best welfare outcomes for the animals who live at our zoo, what credibility do we have to talk to people about wider, bigger issues?

Image © Tomas Sobek on Unsplash: Wild Kea in New Zealand

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