One of the biggest challenges zoos face, is keeping animals fit in their environment. We know a lot about nutrition and body scoring but what do we know about the fitness level of our animals? 

I remember at one of the zoos I worked at we started to introduce a simple system of trying to gauge the fitness of the animals. This was based on a study done before in another park. Read more about this study HERE.

Resting positions can be done in multiple ways.

The Fitness Test

The animal was a dolphin and we did a 3 minute resting position in front of us. The dolphin was asked to be in a side position and was comfortably breathing. After the 3 minutes was over the heart rate was taken for about a minute with a stethoscope.

After this is done the exercise starts. We asked the dolphin to perform the following behaviours: 

  • 3x free bow (dolphin jumps freely through the pool head out first and head enter after)
  • 1x fast swim (dolphin swims the perimeter of the exhibit 1 circle as fast as possible)
  • 3x free bow 
  • 1x tailwalk (dolphin goes backwards with their body 3/4 out of the water using her tail to stay high up) 
  • 3x free bow
  • 1x fast swim
2 behaviours asked in the fitness test are the free jumps and the tail walk.

After this sequence we directly checked the heart rate with a stethoscope once again for about a minute. We then asked the dolphin into a comfortable line up position for about 3 minutes before measuring another heart rate with the stethoscope for a minute. 

The goal was to determine how quickly the heart rate went down to the resting heart rate, which we had measured in the first resting position.

By applying this fitness test, we discovered the individual who we thought was the fittest animal of the group, was actually less fit than expected. This explained directly why she had been acting the way she did in high energy training sessions. 

Do we think about the fitness level of our animals?

When we take care of animals we have to think about every aspect of how we can make sure our animals thrive in their environment. This shouldn’t only be through well planned nutrition, training and enrichment programs. Even though they may help with reaching the goal, we have to understand more of whether the actions we take have a direct affect on the animals we are working with. How can we do this? By measuring.

Caracal Enrichment at Chessington Zoo, UK.

The enrichment presented in the video above allows the animal to practice species specific behaviours to increase well-being. To figure out if this enrichment really works for the fitness of the animal, we have to look at their heart rate. Applying enrichment doesn’t say that we did the right thing. We connect numbers and data to our programs to find out if they work the way we planned them to.

Different sessions with Killer Whales

Exercise sessions are important for any animal in our care.

I thought about this when I was working with killer whales in Loro Parque. We did a variety of different training sessions such as:

Relationship Sessions – We played with the orcas and focused solely on building a relationship.

Enrichment Sessions – We promoted team work with each other, or tried to make sure they used their senses such as their eye sight or sonar.

Show Behaviours – We did presentations/ Shows for the audience.

Learning Sessions – We trained new behaviours which was great mental stimulation.

Foundation Sessions – We worked on team contingencies, separations or any other behaviour necessary as building block for other behaviours.

Beside the relationship building, the sessions that stuck out for me were the fitness sessions

We made sure that everyday we did a session where we basically trained the muscles of the killer whales, just like you would in a gym. We made sure that they would swim X amount of distance through the exhibit, or they would jump X amount of times. Purely to extend their strength and endurance and increase their fitness. 

Sea Lion Body Shapes

I started my career in the Netherlands where I had the pleasure of working with animals who I still have a soft spot for, Californian Sea lions. The sea lions I worked with were trained for many different jumps or other high energy behaviours. This was easily seen by the way they looked. The sea lions were muscular. This was a huge difference from when I moved to Canada, where their sea lions didn’t do any, or as many, high energy behaviours as the ones in the Netherlands. 

Ouwehands Zoo in The Netherlands had sea lions in great fitness due to the amount of high energy behaviours they performed.

We have to measure to find out.

Animals should not only look good from the outside, but should also have a good fitness level. Although you may not be able to see this from the outside, it can be measured. This is the complicated part. An easy method, as discussed earlier, is through measuring their heart rate with a stethoscope, and measuring the time to see how quick their heart rate goes down to resting.

Of course we know through enrichment we can reach a lot of areas of fitness. It’s important to keep on thinking outside the box. Sometimes extra measures have to be taken. Animals who are overweight for example. It is normal to say we decrease food amounts, or put them on a strict diet. The easiest choice to make. In theory this is easy, but when put into practice it sometimes does something else. Carcass feeds with a group of carnivores for example don’t always give you a good chance to succeed. 

Another way to get animals to lose weight is by exercising. Specifically training animals to move more. Through training we can make sure to make an individual move a bit extra. How do you know they lose weight? By measuring it. How can we do this? Scaling the animal. This gives you a clear picture of the weight lost. 

Enrichment that allows the animal to workout is a great add on to the welfare of our animals.

We personally believe that body scoring is a good way of deciding if an animal is to big, small or just the right size. Unfortunately there are also some cons to this technique, with opinions differing from keeper to keeper. To take away all the personal feelings and excuses from what we might see and think, we should scale them or be hands on instead. Imagine looking at an animal such as a wolf in the summer or the winter. Just by looking at their fur we might think look a lot heavier. This makes proper body scoring very difficult.

It isn’t always easy to reach the goal of scaling each individual, or testing them if their fitness levels are good. With creative thinking we will get there. In the end “everything we do should be a welfare benefit to our animals“.

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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