May 19, 2020

The Pursuit of Happiness

How the Zoo’s Care Experts Assess and Ensure the Health and Happiness of Our 3,000 Animals

By Katie Vyas, Director of Animal Wellness and Research


Denver Zoo’s top priority is providing optimal wellness for each and every one of our 3,000 animals, and our staff and volunteers work tirelessly to provide exceptional care. But, what does “wellness” mean when it comes to wildlife, and how do we know our animals are happy and healthy?

There are lots of things to consider in regards to the wellness of our animals: top-notch care, good nutrition, access to veterinary care, the ability to express natural behaviors, and resiliency (based on The 5 Opportunities to Thrive; Vicino and Miller 2013). Our Animal Sciences Department has dedicated teams to ensure that our animals not just experience good welfare, but are happy and thrive.

Denver utilizes evidence-based wellness assessment tools to provide data that helps us determine if our animals are thriving and helps guide our strategies so that we are continuously supporting optimal wellness. In addition to daily observations and care, each and every animal is formally assessed at least four times a year. Our animal care experts pick a series of indicators tailormade for each species that are closely tied to their wellness and give them a rating based on pre-determined criteria.

Here are just a few examples of how we evaluate our animals’ wellness:

Bodhi the Asian Elephant

Bodhi gets a score on 24 different indicators that we feel are important to the wellness of Asian elephants, including caretaker-elephant interactions, attitude, food consumption, health status, social interactions and more. The Zoo’s Animal Sciences team works together to formulate a plan to address concerns if they find the score(s) doesn’t meet set standards.

Dancer the African Penguin

In addition to our quarterly assessments on every animal in the zoo, we also perform more frequent assessments for animals with known conditions. Dancer, for instance, is 27 years old and near the end of her life expectancy. She’s still full of personality, but can sometimes be a little stiff due to arthritis. In addition to veterinary care, the bird keepers rate indicators associated with arthritis (e.g. mobility) once a week so that we can look for trends that help us better manage the condition and to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible.


As stated earlier, we assess every animal at the Zoo, from our mighty Asian elephants in Toyota Elephant Passage to our colorful corals in Tropical Discovery. We look at our corals as a group and assess/rate the indicators relevant to coral health, such as coloration, feeding response and locomotion to name a few.  We make a note if we find a particular coral in a tank is not scoring as expected and monitor closely or adjust our care strategies.

At Denver Zoo, we view animal wellness as a science and use the wellness data we collect to ensure we are providing the best care possible and to drive positive change as needed. This data allows us to be proactive in the continuous effort to see our wildlife thrive. It takes a committed and passionate group of people to make this happen and Denver Zoo has just that. Be sure to see the animals at Denver Zoo living their best life the next time you visit and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube for more stories about your favorite animals! And watch the video below from Benson's Predator Ridge Keeper, Jordan, about how we do welfare checks on spotted hyenas and lions!


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