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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who spent a summer with wallabies

MSc grad Julie Beaudin-Judd researched the impact of exhibit designs on behaviour
November 13, 2017
By Kenneth Gibson

Given the chance, few people would turn down the opportunity to hang out with cute, cuddly wallabies.

That’s exactly what recent Concordia grad Julie Beaudin-Judd (MSc 17) did during the summer of 2015. She was conducting fieldwork for her Master of Science in Biology, completed under the supervision of Robert Weladji, associate professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Beaudin-Judd spent her days painstakingly recording the animals’ behaviour, which required making a notation every 15 seconds. Her goal? To better understand how exhibit enclosure designs affect the happiness and well-being of zoo animals.

Concordia University and the Granby Zoo began a long-term collaboration in 2014 with the aim of improving knowledge about captive animals and how the zoo can improve living conditions. 

Zoo enclosures have evolved tremendously in the past half-century, from the days of small cages to more natural settings. Beaudin-Judd was interested in one particular innovation: exhibits that allow physical interaction with visitors.

She set out to determine the optimal amount of human interaction for creating a happy and healthy wallaby.

‘The welfare of zoo-housed animals is an ongoing issue'

How does this specific image relate to the research you did at Concordia? 

This picture was taken during my first field season in the summer of 2015. I was busy observing the behaviour of wallabies living in a more traditional, closed habitat.

During the course of that time, I visited three zoos in Quebec, Ontario and the United States. I observed differences in wallaby behaviours living in varying exhibit design concepts: traditional, closed versus open, and free-range.

Many times over many hours a day, I observed individual wallabies from a distance. Patience was key! I recorded dominant behaviour every 15 seconds, for a total of 10 minutes.

The behaviours I recorded were predetermined in an ethogram: resting, vigilance, locomotion, feeding, social interaction, grooming. These were the behaviours I used for my observations, generating average rates.

What was the hoped-for result of your project? And what impact could you see it having?

I wanted to better understand the impacts of different designs with the hope of contributing to zoo animal well-being. The welfare of zoo-housed animals has been an ongoing issue for many decades now.

Research has led to the gradual redesign of zoo exhibits over time, shifting away from the original small-barred cages, to more complex and natural settings. One in particular that is increasingly found in zoos is the free-range design. It’s an open exhibit where physical interaction is possible with human visitors.

Whether the human-animal interaction allowed by these exhibits is beneficial to the captive species was a question Robert Weladji and I were interested in investigating. The main goal of my research was to enable scientists, as well as zoo members, to gain further insight into what levels of interaction with humans is optimal for the well-being and happiness of captive wallabies. A complementary goal was enriching the visitors’ experience as much as possible.

What were some of the major challenges you faced in your research?

One of the major ones was the weather. Obviously, when your research involves spending many weeks collecting data outside, it was sometimes difficult under bad conditions.

Also, data could only be collected within very restricted timelines during my two years of studies (summer weeks only, when the zoos were open to the public).

Lastly, animal behaviour can sometimes be very difficult to interpret. Lots of research is needed to overcome this challenge and understand their behaviours better.

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

Research results from projects like mine are being applied directly in zoological parks, especially when it comes to future exhibit development. There is always more knowledge to discover. Therefore, it is important that it be applied to finding new ways to make exhibit designs even better for both animals and their visitors.

Overall, our results showed that feeding and interactive behaviours were significantly higher in closed exhibit designs. Although these behaviours did significantly differ between habitat designs, all other behaviours remained similar in proportion.

Consequently, we did not have sufficient evidence for major exhibit design impacts on wallaby welfare. Therefore, our results suggest that the open exhibit design is a good option for optimizing visitor experience without affecting animal welfare, but we recommend continued research to more fully understand the impacts of different exhibit designs on the behaviour and welfare of captive Bennett’s wallabies.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

I have always had a fascination with animals and their well-being, from my childhood pets, to studying animal biology and working in a veterinary environment. After my bachelor’s degree, I knew I wanted to continue on in this field of study that I loved. I met Robert Weladji one afternoon, and before I knew it, I was hired as a graduate student to study under his wing.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

Don’t be shy to ask questions! If a supervisor’s research interests you, ask them about it and how you can get involved. They can always use extra help.

What did you like best about being at Concordia?

Being a graduate student at Concordia was a very enriching experience for me. I developed a sense of family with my fellow lab mates. I also learned a lot about both my field of study and myself while I was there.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

The Granby Zoo was a main collaborator on the project, both financially and for idea input. They suggested potential zoo research questions and signed a collaboration with Concordia. I had several meetings with Granby Zoo officials over the course of my project. They guided me and answered any questions I had.

Riverview Park and Zoo in Peterborough, Ontario and Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island allowed me to use their wallaby exhibits for observation. I also received funding from Mitacs.

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Biology.


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