Samuel Decker

Position/Title: M.Sc. (Thesis) Student

I completed my MSc by thesis focusing on animal welfare and behaviour with Dr. Georgia Mason in Fall 2019.

My research seeks to understand how various provision schemes for environmental enrichment impact the welfare of group-housed animals. Environmental enrichment is the addition of physical, sensory, or social features into a captive environment to meet the needs and preferences of an animal. My work deals with manipulable enrichments, such as balls, ropes, and rings. I want to know how the number, diversity, and change over time of these enrichments impacts their ability to improve welfare. Understanding the relationship between these factors will help design future enrichment programs for captive animals. Additionally, I am investigating whether active use of enrichment is necessary for an animal to receive the welfare benefits typically associated with enrichments or if passive use, such as having the enrichment available but not played with, is enough. For example, animals may store enrichments in protected areas, such as a nest or den, and potentially receive a welfare benefit from knowing the enrichment is available without direct interaction. Knowing what forms of use are beneficial for welfare will aid future validation of welfare-improving enrichments. To assess welfare, I measured various welfare indicators: stereotypic behaviour, cage-mate aggression, fearfulness, and boredom-like states. When interpreted together, these indicators allow me to compare welfare between provision schemes or find relationships between welfare and enrichment use. Data collection for both aspects of my research was completed in November 2018 and analysis is ongoing, but I hope to have results soon!

This research utilizes a captive population of American mink (Neovison vison), which are a model carnivore for behaviour studies. My research is funded by the Joint Mink Research Committee and the Highly Qualified Personnel program from the partnership between University of Guelph and OMAFRA. Working with mink allows my research to influence future editions of the NFACC Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Mink. This creates an opportunity for my research to directly improve the welfare of farmed mink while contributing to a fundamental understanding of how environmental enrichment impacts welfare. More broadly, my research can be applied to other captive carnivores, such as those in zoos and aquariums, because mink exhibit similar behavioural abnormalities and needs.