Animal Observations and Creating a Behaviour Baseline

I have written many articles about the benefits of a goal based enrichment programs and how to implement them into an animal care facility. In these articles I have looked extensively on the goal setting process and defining what success looks like, particularly with individual enrichment items, but how do we measure success on the scope of a whole behavioural husbandry program with a specific animal or group of animals? More importantly, how do we even set goals for a program as a whole based on the animals welfare and not just enrichment or training outcomes and perceived welfare? To do this effectively you need to observe an animal over time with set metrics in mind and this is also where the concept of a “Behaviour Baseline” comes in.

How to Meaningfully Observe an Animal

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of establishing any sort of behaviour baseline, we need to talk about Animal Observation as it is really the key to all the concepts we are going to be talking about today. For most animal care professionals, the only time we really consciously observe the animals we care for is when we are servicing an exhibit, walking around the facility or if we are specifically looking for reactions to an enrichment item or an introduction of some kind. This kind of observation, although valuable, has several issues and biases that need to be addressed. The first being the bias that comes with doing in person observations is that the animal may act differently around caretakers and that may significantly affect results. Another bias is a time of day bias, if you are only observing the animal opportunistically, you are likely to be doing it on a routine during the day, for example you walk by the tiger enclosure right after you have cleaned the orangutan holding which happens to be at around 10-11am every day. Only taking observations when enrichment items or food items are put out will only give you an idea of the behaviour of the animal when they should be at their most engaged and active, thus giving you a sort of rose coloured view of what the animals day actually looks like.

So how do we eliminate these biases and actually take meaningful observations of the animals we care for? Well one of the best things you can do to eliminate most of the biases we talked about is by using a surveillance system of some kind to observe the animals behaviour throughout the day. Many new exhibits are already equipped with some kind of surveillance system, but if it is not, inexpensive security cameras are readily available these days that can be set up around an exhibit and moved to other exhibits if needed. An even cheaper and simpler solution is to purchase some trail cameras that are set off by the animals movement, obviously these have limitations as they cannot observe the exhibit as a whole 24/7 but they are effective in a pinch. 

Surveillance systems are really the best way to get a 24/7 view of an animal’s day to day activity, but if that’s not an option, positioning an employee/ volunteer to observe an animal is a great way to gather data of what an animal is doing during the daytime and is especially useful when certain behaviours or interactions need to be reported immediately (as in the case of an introduction etc.). Regardless of the method you use to collect observations/ data, you are still going to require a human to interpret this data, which can lead to huge biases in itself, so let’s talk about how to mitigate these as well. 

The most important thing to do before attempting to meaningfully observe an animal is to sit down with all your team members that are going to be doing the data collection/ observations and actually talk about the behaviours that you are looking for and what they mean. During this meeting, you can create an ethogram, which is essentially a list of behaviours that the animal displays and what they mean/ what they look like. This document will help keep everyone on the same page and allow for accurate data collection. Now that we know how to make meaningful observations of an animal, we can now take a look at why we would want to do that and how we can use these observations to positively affect our behavioural husbandry programs.

What Is a Behaviour Baseline?

Now there are many reasons why we would want to observe what the day to day activities of the animals in our care might look like, but in the context of a behavioural husbandry program, I believe creating a “Behaviour Baseline” is incredibly useful. A behaviour baseline is basically an outline of what an animal’s behaviour looks like in a day on average, expressed in several key metrics that vary by animal. For example a basic behaviour baseline may look like this:

  • 9am-11am: Foraging for food 
  • 11-3pm: Social Interaction with Conspecifics 
  • 4-6pm: Foraging for food
  • 6pm-9am: Rest and sleep

This behaviour baseline should be as complicated as it needs to be and should track behaviours that are relevant to the animal in question and relevant to the behavioural husbandry program as a whole. The idea of this baseline is not to make it complex, it is to get an understanding of how the animal is spending its time/ interacting with its environment so you can make accurate and informed decisions about their welfare and behavioural husbandry. Therefor creating a behaviour baseline is often the first thing I recommend to facilities that I work with, when assessing an existing enrichment program or starting a new program for almost any animal. I think its an absolutely crucial step that will give you more information and insight into what the animal actually requires behaviourally then almost anything else you can do. So now that we know what a behaviour baseline is, lets talk about how to actually set one up!

How to Establish a Baseline

Establishing some sort of basic behaviour baseline does not need to be challenging and is really as simple as you want to make it. The first step is figuring out the metrics you want to keep track of for the baseline, this is going to vary a lot depending on the animal you are creating the baseline for. For example, when creating this behaviour baseline for a snake, you really have to be tracking activity time and any enrichment/ food interaction, because generally outside of those activities the snake isn’t going to be doing much at all. But if you are doing a baseline on a Gorilla, you are going to have significantly more behavioural parameters that are going to be important to the day to day life of that animal. Any stereotypic behaviours or negative behaviours are always something you are going to want to track to get an idea of how often they occur in an animal’s day and their severity. 

Once you have decided on the metrics you want to measure, you simply have to review your data and estimate how long each behaviour is being performed for and how often and try to build a routine or an average day to day schedule for that animal. This can generally be done by fast forwarding through the surveillance video or looking through observation notes. Remember, you are trying to focus on the behaviours that you have set out to look for and build patterns around those behaviours, you are not trying to look for one offs or strange activity. It’s not about what the animal did on Tuesday of last week, it’s about how the animal spent its day that week or that month. However, if you are reviewing the data, and you see a behavioural pattern that you did not anticipate like an unknown stereotypic behaviour or unexpected social interactions then you might want to include those in the baseline.

Goal Setting

As we have talked about in previous articles, one of the most important aspects of any enrichment program is that it is goal based, and that is why I believe a behavioural husbandry baseline can be so useful. With the day to day activity of the animal you are working with in hand, it is so much easier to not only create goals but also assess the goal that you have set out to achieve. For example when you are looking at your baseline, there are several things you can look for in regards to goal setting: 

  • Are there any behaviours missing from this animals day to day life that we should focus on building enrichment around?
  • Are there any negative behaviour patterns that we should look at trying to mitigate? 
  • Are there any stereotypic behaviours that you didn’t know about?
  • Is this animal’s behaviour routine based?
  • Does the animal display an appropriate level of foraging compared to their wild counterparts?
  • Is the enrichment you are providing them effective?

As you can see from the short list above, answers to these questions can result in a whole pile of goals for you and your team to focus on. The great thing about this behaviour baseline method is that you can continuously monitor the baseline to see if your goals are being accomplished or if you are making progress toward accomplishing them. For instance you could do a behaviour baseline right before an enrichment program overhaul and then a month after the overhaul to see if there’s any deviation from the baseline that would indicate you are having a positive effect on the animals welfare.

Be Proactive and not Reactive

The purpose of this exercise is not to wait until you see problems arise, it is a method of being proactive and taking control of the situation before behavioural problems arise. Things like restlessness and boredom often manifest themselves subtly in an animals behaviour and might not be clear during normal observation periods, but making a commitment to meaningfully observe an animal frequently and creating these behaviour baselines as often as you can, will give you a great idea of where the animal is welfare wise, and can make catching problems before they arise, that much easier. 

I would recommend taking a step back from an enrichment program and doing one of these assessments several times a year in order to get a real picture of how effective the enrichment program is and if there are any improvements that can be made or goals to focus on long term.

Macro and Micro Benefits

This practice of building behaviour baselines will have both macro and micro benefits on the enrichment and welfare program as a whole. The macro benefits will come when you have done several of these over time and can point to real trends and improvements over time, not just the normal enrichment tracking that you are doing very day. The micro benefits will come from the day to day improvements you can make for the animal in their management when you have an idea of how they are spending their day. You will have a great understanding of what an “off” day might actually look like and may be able to effectively change the way you currently manage those animals to better suit your goals.


It is clear that taking meaningful and bias-free observation of the animals you work with over time and creating behaviour baseline assessments will dramatically improve effective decision making and the overall effectiveness of the behavioural husbandry program. These skills can also be translated in almost all areas of animal care and will almost always result in an improvement in overall animal welfare. If you want help creating a behaviour baseline and applying it to your enrichment program, contact us and we would be happy to help! Now get out there and watch your animals! You may be surprised at what you see.

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