Captive animal welfare

 "Animal welfare is the primary enabler of our bond with the animals entrusted to our care".

— T. L. Maple & B. M. Perdue, Zoo Animal Welfare 2013

Why measure welfare in captivity? 

Measuring an animal's welfare is a relatively new phenomenon, so the economic and intrinsic values are only just starting to be made clear. Although those managing captive collections have long discussed their animals' welfare, until now there have not been accurate methods of showing whether or not the animals had a good quality of life. Traditionally, health or epidemiological measures were used as indications for welfare, and while they can indeed be useful, they are not always accurate: take for example a dairy cow, who although on paper will likely have a high reproductive rate, may also be in poor welfare day-to-day. 

Nowadays, we use a combination of animal-based and resource-based measures to give the most accurate and comprehensive view of overall welfare. Such information reflects the animal's response to its surrounding environment, which can help us to answer any number of questions we might have about the resources we are providing or that are available, whether in captivity or the wild. Enhancing animal welfare has clear economic benefits: they produce and reproduce more, they are healthier, live longer lives, show a greater range of behaviours, and less abnormal behaviours. And then of course there is the ethical obligation to the animals we are responsible for: if we are using them for our benefit we should ensure they experience a good quality of life. Fortunately, this standpoint is now strongly supported by the public as well. 

Finding out whether animals are optimists or pessimists is known as cognitive bias testing, and is one of the most recent exciting developments in welfare science: find out why in the video below!

Implementing a basic welfare monitoring tool for use by zoo animal staff 

Although studying animal emotions provides us with much insight into welfare, sometimes time and environmental restrictions mean that more practical measures are needed. This year-long project implemented a standardised data collection tool for dolphin caretakers to record the animals' motivation during daily training sessions in 5 international facilities. Other health and social behaviour measures were also conducted to see whether the "Trainer scores" of motivation were an accurate welfare measure. The results are currently being analysed but are looking promising, and agree with previous findings that zookeeper's ratings of behaviour and welfare are valuable and reliable tools. 

Examples oF captive animal projects

The projects described below are all at different stages of completion but are used here to showcase how AWE's services may be applied. 

Expert opinion in a government decision-making process regarding animals in compromised welfare

Despite zoos moving with the times and working to ensure good welfare, there are some cases where an adequate level of welfare cannot be reached. Isabella recently took part in such a case, which is still passing through the final government approvals, where she was invited to participate in a consensus-taking exercise regarding the animals' future. The group of experts was asked to present their findings, answer a series of questions, and offer their own welfare evaluations of the animals' current and future welfare states. Isabella's expertise on measuring animal welfare helped to ensure that the decision was in the animals' best interests.

Developing a research project to be conducted in a zoo

Research is not always a regular part of daily routines in zoo settings, and so the main challenge of establishing a research project here is getting the humans (and animals!) habituated to the necessary tasks. In this case, the project was being developed by a staff member and conducted alongside other duties, which presented further challenges. We successfully managed to choose a welfare-related topic that all members of the team were happy with, and guided the process of proposal-writing and training the animals for the task. The data collection phase is underway, so watch this space for some interesting results!

If you are interested in AWE's expertise on a captive animal welfare issue, please do 

© 2017-20 Isabella Clegg

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