Meet the animal welfare scientist who is reimagining zoos

Multispecies habitats should be designed around the animals’ needs, not the visitor’s

Multispecies habitats should be designed around the animals’ needs, not the visitor’s

A walrus with trainer at Vancouver Aquarium (Sebastion Furtado)

In the summer of 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned a sculptor to create a life-size model of a killer whale. An orca was to be killed off the coast of British Columbia and be used for the display; however, the hunter's harpoon hooked the whale but it didn't die. The injured animal, named Moby Doll, was towed back to the aquarium and put on display.

Long regarded as "monsters" and fearsome predators, Moby Doll soon earned a reputation as "Vancouver's beloved pet whale," changing the world's view of orcas forever.

"[People] learned that these are not just killing machines — they're like us," said Jake Veasey, a renowned animal welfare scientist and conservation biologist. "They're social. They care about their relatives, the [whales] that they share that pod with." Today, public attitudes toward marine mammals in captivity are shifting again, a story told in The Nature of Things documentary The Last Walrus

1 million species at risk of extinction

Veasey has spent decades working with animals, both in the wild and in zoos in Africa, Europe and North America. "At a very young age, I wanted to dedicate my life to helping prevent species become extinct," he said.

A UN report estimates up to a million species are at risk of being lost. "In my lifetime, the reduction in natural ecosystems has been absolutely catastrophic," said Veasey. "We've lost hundreds of thousands of orangutans.... We're losing tens of millions of sharks [each year]." And he believes zoos have a role to play in the care and conservation of some wild animals. 

"Conservation comes in many forms," he said, adding that people go to zoos knowing that they are supporting an organization that helps to save species. "It's protecting species in your facility. It's providing expertise [and] resources to help protect species in the wild. It's leveraging the profiles that that species generates as a result of the people coming to that facility to help shift policy."

Tragically, Moby Doll died a few months after she was captured. But in the few months she was in captivity, she inspired an entire generation of scientists to learn more about these remarkable creatures — and, more importantly, motivated the public to care about them. Soon afterward, "save the whales" marches started, and decades later, legislation was passed to phase out the captivity of marine mammals in Canada. 

Building zoos to meet an animal's psychological needs

As more animals were placed in captivity, many lessons were learned along the way, including a growing importance on balancing both the physical and psychological components of animal welfare. "It's important to understand that we don't necessarily need to replicate everything animals experience in nature," said Veasey. "But we need a much more sophisticated approach so we can target our resources in delivering the things that matter."

He gave the example of a walrus, a marine mammal that forages for food using sensitive whiskers and its muzzle to extract mollusks from the seabed. This natural behaviour is important to their psychological well-being, according to Veasey. "We want to provide environments in which animals solve their own problems," he said. "[Walruses] don't need to run away from polar bears to be happy, but they probably need opportunities to forage and feed as they do in nature."

The animal's experience is paramount, not the public's

Veasey is well-known in Canada, where he spent four years at the Calgary Zoo, overhauling its animal welfare practices and embarking on an ambitious redevelopment project to turn it into a world-class institution. 

He's developing a process to identify the psychological needs of animals. "Animal welfare is essentially about how animals feel. It's about the emotional state of the animal," said Veasey. "From my perspective, animal welfare is about the happiness of animals." He's always worked to create engaging multispecies habitats that are designed around the animals' needs, not the visitor's. 

Public opinion on animals in captivity is changing, and Veasey feels it's sparking a healthy discussion around the future of zoos. "I consider myself an animal welfare activist," he said. "I think people who challenge welfare attainment in zoos and aquariums have been important in driving the sector forward."

"We do all care about animals.... We need to work with that in order to continually evolve and continually develop to deliver animal welfare standards that meet increasingly demanding expectations from our public, which is fantastic."

Watch The Last Walrus on The Nature of Things.

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