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Read on as Dr. Isabella Clegg, cetacean expert of the organization Animal Welfare Expertise, expounds on the Cetacean Welfare Assessment, one of the aquarium’s most recent proactive endeavors to provide the highest standards of care and wellbeing for its animals.

How Do You Measure Animal Welfare?

Over the last decade, looking after our mental health has become equally as important as our physical health. Luckily, we are also now able to measure and optimize animals’ total health and wellness — both mental and physical — which is often referred to as their welfare. One of the five key factors for measuring animal welfare is evaluating the mental stimulation they receive.

I am an animal welfare scientist and help zoos and aquariums to measure their animals’ welfare and make recommendations for continued, ongoing improvements so every animal has the opportunity to experience the best possible welfare. Although modern zoos prioritize animal welfare through daily care programs and long-term commitments, and consider welfare assessments based on their own expertise and knowledge of individual animals, I offer an additional layer of scrutiny.

Objective and rigorous external assessments help identify what those working closely with animals may subjectively miss. So, when leaders at Shedd Aquarium reached out to seek external experts to conduct a third-party welfare assessment of their beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) to evaluate their standard of care, I was excited to be a part of the project.

We at Animal Welfare Expertise visited Shedd to apply the “Cetacean Welfare Assessment,” or "C-Well," to the belugas and dolphins (cetacean is the name describing all whale and dolphin species) through a novel method developed specifically for these animals.

The C-Well is applied to each individual animal, and involves collecting data on everything that is provided to the animals by the aquarium, and importantly on each animal's behavior, health and cognition. The aim of the process was to give Shedd an overall welfare evaluation, as well as recommendations for improvements.

Dr. Isabella Clegg observes beluga whales while in the lower level viewing area of the Abbott Oceanarium at Shedd

Dr. Isabella Clegg observes the belugas whales underwater.

Shedd’s Welfare Results

The overall C-Well scores for both the beluga whales and dolphins suggested the animals were in "good to excellent" welfare, with a small range between individuals.

The C-Well report praised Shedd’s health care program, human-animal relationships and how well the team of caretakers worked. While the enrichment items (objects and activities offering stimulation and play opportunities) were noted as being well-organized, it was suggested that Shedd works on improving the variety and complexity of the enrichment.

On the Forefront of Welfare Knowledge

The C-Well project at Shedd is the first animal-based, species-specific assessment application to Pacific white-sided dolphins, a species for which little is known in the wild.

While belugas are a little more studied, welfare science for cetaceans is still a very new field. Shedd has made a notable commitment to objectively understand how these animals are doing by bringing in an external evaluator unaffiliated with a zoo or aquarium.

Independent welfare assessments on whales and dolphins, such as this one, are invaluable in providing objective, animal-based data and can help to optimize the lives of these animals in human care. Assessments like these are also at the forefront of efforts to better understand the pressures these animals face in the wild, which are very likely to be impacting their wellbeing.

Dr. Isabella Clegg photographs the inside of a beluga's mouth, floating at the edge of the water in the Oceanarium at Shedd

Dr. Isabella Clegg takes photos to document and measure a beluga whale's welfare.

Editor’s Note from Shedd Aquarium

By reputation and practice, Shedd Aquarium has a long-dedicated focus to ensuring the animals in its care receive exemplary treatment, enrichment and veterinary service, as well as investment in the people and facilities that provide a world-class environment in which they can thrive.

As one of the world’s leading dolphin and beluga whale care facilities, Shedd strongly respects, supports and complies with the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and bylaws of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which we are accredited. Most notably until now, Shedd partnered with the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, in the largest-ever, multi-institutional study of how physical habitat, environmental enrichment and animal training impact the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums worldwide.

Following this most recent proactive endeavor, Shedd’s animal care team closely analyzed these results and has since implemented the suggested improvements to its enrichment program.

Shedd has a team dedicated to brainstorming, building, evaluating and modifying our own new, creative enrichment items to add to our rotating inventory of toys that encourages mental and physical exploration and play. As seen in the video above, or observed on a visit, the cetaceans interact with a variety of items like feeding puzzle toys, buoys, balls, hoops, hoses, tubes, and more. The aquarium continues to implement other suggestions from Dr. Clegg’s assessment that span the cetaceans’ welfare.