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The C-Well© Assessment
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The C-Well© Assessment is a comprehensive set of 36 welfare measures for bottlenose dolphins in captivity


The Cetacean Welfare Assessment©, or C-Well, was developed in 2013 in a collaboration between the University of Miami and Dolphins Plus, Dolphin Cove and Island Dolphin Care in the Florida Keys. The objective of the project was to adapt a well-established farm animal welfare assessment (WelfareQuality®) to captive dolphins. Globally, this was the first effort to develop a comprehensive assessment for zoo animals using welfare science principles. The measures were established using published literature on dolphin health, behaviour, physiology, anatomy, cognition, and ecology, with an emphasis on normal and abnormal states. Throughout the process, professional expertise from other welfare scientists, veterinarians and marine mammal curators was systematically included. Measures were then tested practically on the 20 dolphins at the facilities and further refined, with repeated applications to animals in poorer health or social standing. 

The C-Well© contains 36 measures, the majority of which are animal-based, which each follow a standardised scoring system (0 = good welfare, 1 = sub-optimal/adequate welfare, 2 = poor welfare). The assessment is designed to be objective, practical and "strategically redundant", i.e. some of the measures aim to capture the same phenomenon, reducing the chance of signs being missed. It measures individual dolphin welfare, and has the ability to make comparisons across demographics (e.g. sex and age), as well as between facilities to establish ‘best practices’. A detailed instruction manual was developed alongside the C-Well© to allow third party assessors to conduct the measures. The process and an overview of the C-Well© measures was published in the journal Animal Welfare (Clegg, Borger-Turner & Eskelinen, 2015, contact us for a copy). 

"Compared with any previous examination of cetacean welfare, this framework allows analysis of behavioural and physiological measures together, and is an important first step in the development of comprehensive and practical bottlenose dolphin welfare assessment.

—  S. Brando, D. Broom, C. Acasuso-Rivero & F. Clark, Behavioural Processes 2017

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Current status

The C-Well© provides a set of tools to evaluate the welfare of captive bottlenose dolphins. Conducting the assessment on 10 dolphins would take 2 days of an assessor's time. Currently, the full assessment is only set up to be carried out by trained assessors, but animal care staff can apply individual measures (after appropriate training) to encourage regular welfare monitoring. To date, 8 facilities have had the C-Well applied, translating to over 80 cetaceans. 

The C-Well© has also been enriched with the findings of Isabella's PhD thesis on developing dolphin welfare parameters (see publications). There are some notable additions, especially with regard to: 

  • Anticipatory behaviour. This describes activity performed before predictable events, and recent work on reward anticipation suggests it could be an accurate and easy-to-measure welfare indicator. 

  • Affiliative behaviour. Positive social behaviour has always been thought to indicate good welfare, but Isabella's latest work has revealed which types, and in what frequencies, are linked to positive affective state in dolphins. 

  • Human-Animal Relationship. Captive dolphins have a unique type of interaction with their caretakers, often with high levels of contact time. Isabella's findings suggest that dolphins do form close relationships with their trainers, and if established in the correct manner these bonds play a very important part in improving dolphin welfare.

"We believe that the C-Well© has great potential in evaluating animal welfare in bottlenose dolphins"

—  Katrin Baumgartner & Tim Hüttner, Nuremberg Zoo  and  Daniela Rickert, Official Veterinarian at the Nuremberg Local Authority

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Next steps

The C-Well© is constantly being improved as more facilities test it practically while feeding back their data, and more studies are published on dolphin welfare. This development will allow more accurate weighting of the measures and scores, and an expert group is being constructed to provide additional input and oversee the assessment's evolution. The framework has also been applied to Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and belugas, has the potential to be conducted on other marine species and beyond.

In a progressive development, the C-Well© methodology is being used by projects housing cetaceans in large sea pens, sometimes called "sanctuaries", and therefore is starting to unite the two "sides" of the captivity debate by finding consensus between stakeholders on how to measure welfare. One of the long-term objectives of the C-Well© was for use in benchmarking and certification, as is currently occurring with farm animal assessments. AWE is committed to securing productive collaborations for the C-Well© project in order to work towards this goal. 

"The C-Well Assessment© can be used as a model for future development in zoos and dolphinariums, as well as a means to support benchmarking, industry best practices, and certification."

—  World Cetacean Alliance, Tourism Activities Involving Wild Cetaceans 2018

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C-Well Resources

AWE is constantly working to provide as many open-access tools as possible to help caretakers, researchers and others to improve captive animal welfare. One of the ways this is achieved is through science communication on our social media platforms (links at bottom of the page). Recently, through our @thedolphindoctor instagram account, AWE published a learning series called #DailyDolphinBehaviour, where the main dolphin behaviours were defined and explained as part of an ethogram that is applicable to all delphinid species, in the wild and captivity. You can access this ethogram for free by clicking on the image below! 

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Click to download the ethogram!

If you are interested in applying the C-Well© Assessment at your organisation, please

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