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So we asked the giraffe, “How do you really feel?”

by | April 21st, 2015

I have worked with UC Davis for almost 10 years on a variety of projects – raising California salamanders, watching turtle interactions, training dolphins, living amongst monkeys in India, and watching chimpanzees – and though all these projects have been fascinating, the current project we are launching excites me to the core. Our Animal Well-Being Research program at Oakland Zoo is still in its infancy, but it’s strong, vibrant, and ready to pave the way in enhancing our animal’s lives and what we know about them.  We’re developing new ways for keepers to let animals tell (or show) us about their emotional lives.  Some of these new ‘tools’ are borrowed from the large human literature on human emotion (termed “affective science”).  Others, we’ll be building ourselves.

The first reason I am excited about the research, which is be described below, is that we will be working directly with Dr. Eliza Bliss-Moreau at the University of California, Davis, with whom I have worked since 2009 on a variety of other forward-looking projects in animal welfare. Dr. Bliss-Moreau studies emotion and the biological ingredients that make up emotions. Her multi-method and multi-species approach to understanding the social and affective lives of both humans and nonhuman animals is, in our opinion, revolutionary. Her work points to evidence from biological research to challenge commonly-held beliefs about what emotions are and about how we interpret their presence in others.  Armed with new questions, she’s looking for ways for animals to tell us about their experiences using biological tools that are new to animal welfare. We are lucky to have such a great mind at the helm, and she has remarked that our animal care team and program supports a ‘living laboratory’ that enhances both science and animal well-being.

The second reason I am excited about this research is it has the potential to be ground-breaking – not only in what we know about animals, but also in what we can do to enhance their lives. The goal of our collaborative research project is to investigate whether the cardiac system in nonhuman mammals functions similarly to that of humans during emotional experiences.  When people interact, we use what we know about emotions to gather information about whether others are feeling down, gleeful, tired, apprehensive, excited, etc. We are all familiar with what it feels like to walk into a final exam or job interview, see a car accident, or fall in love.  They are all experiences that can be felt physically, with our hearts pumping faster, our stomachs tightening, etc. When in doubt, we can ask each other how we feel.

In the same way, as animals keepers, we perceive the behaviors of animals using our own human understanding of them (which may or may not be 100% accurate relative to what the animal is experiencing), but we can’t take the next step in asking them how they are feeling. There is no doubt that animals live dynamic, enriched lives as well, but until recently it has not been possible to look at how animals experience their environment from the inside out—by noninvasively evaluating a biological system (in this case, the cardiac system) that responds quickly and efficiently to the environment.DSC_0013

The current focus of our new efforts is in training the giraffe to participate in a testing process that will record the function of the heart—electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) and impedance cardiograms. The cardiac system is regulated by two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch.  While people sometimes think of the parasympathetic branch is the “rest and digest” system (where activity in the system calms someone down so that they can prepare for the future by eating, sleeping, and reproducing) and the sympathetic branch as the “fight or flight” system (where activity in the system allows someone to attack or run away) the two branches work together to keep us balanced, which allows us to respond appropriately to different situations. Dr. Bliss-Moreau explains it this way: “While the control centers for the autonomic nervous system are in the brain, the system is based in the body and regulating physiology south of the brainstem.  It is largely responsible for generating one of the necessary and critical ingredients of emotion– affect. I typically talk about autonomic nervous activity as giving “color” to experience.  Its activity is why hearing footsteps in a dark alleyway feels negative; the ramped-up feeling when you’re anticipating something major to happen; the pleasantness of a really good massage, and so on.”

Dr. Bliss-Moreau and many other affective scientists (see https://society-for-affective-science.org/) are involved in research looking at how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to brief emotional stimuli (a honk of a loud horn, a tear-jerking Super Bowl commercial) and also how there are sDSC_0112table differences between individuals in how their autonomic nervous systems function.  With regards to the latter, the idea is that if you track ANS activity in different animals across time, you’ll see patterns.  And then changes to those patterns might indicate changes in mood states. We’ll be doing this work first with the Oakland Zoo’s giraffes and ring-tailed lemurs. “If we can show that variation between individuals or within a particular individual across time is meaningful, then it opens the possibility of asking an animal, ‘how are you today?’, putting on some sensors, recording some data, and getting an answer. Cool, right?  I think it’s SUPER cool!” said Dr. Bliss-Moreau. But before we can do this, we have to develop new ways to collect such recordings in a way that is non-invasive for the animals, as well as train the animals to participate willingly in the data collection.

For each animal involved with this research, we start by training the animals that the research equipment (sensors, leads, stethoscope, etc.) are not painful or even just simply icky. We do this by using positive reinforcement, habituation, and desensitization – training methods that reinforce an animal’s comfort and control in the situation. This basically means that you pair something new (like physiology equipment) with something really good (like pieces of banana) until the animal is comfortable with having the novel stimulus around and touching them.

IMG_0444You can see zookeepers and Dr. Bliss-Moreau habituating and desensitizing one of our giraffes, ‘Benghazi,’ to being touched with sticky sensors. When Benghazi is calm, and allows the training team to touch him with the sensors, he is rewarded with one of his favorite foods (which in Benghazi’s case is bananas, whole wheat bread, and carrots). You can also see that Benghazi is not restrained, and can walk away from the training session at any time he chooses. Over time and with repetition, Benghazi learns that nothing bad happens to him when the keeper touches him with the sensors. Interestingly, we needed to place the sensors on poles and hold them against Benghazi’s skin since giraffes naturally exude an oily ‘insect repellant’ that prevents the sensors from sticking to his skin. In this most recent training session, Dr. Bliss-Moreau and our Oakland Zoo giraffe training team were able to record “beautiful” (according to Dr. Bliss-Moreau) cardiac data – our first major victory!

As we wrapped up the training session Dr. Bliss-Moreau observed, “It DSC_0118was really exciting for us to see the giraffes at the Oakland Zoo participating in this research, especially since we’ve been using the same techniques to get our monkeys ready for physiology data collection in the lab… We developed a reward-based training technique that uses cooperative training allowing rhesus macaques to work with us to participate in similar hands-on testing in just a few weeks. Using these cooperative training techniques and data collection methods means that animals are really our partners in the research—participants, rather than subjects!”

There is still a long road ahead of us, but one that is well-worth traveling. There are likely differences in how animals and humans not only perceive their world, but in how they feel about it as well. Studies like this are important for our understanding of both the similarities and differences. This aids in our understanding of non-human life on our planet as much as it aids in our ensuring the animals we care for have enriching physical, social, and emotional lives.