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WILD animal welfare

 "Wild animals are impacted by human activities and there is increasing recognition that their welfare is a legitimate moral concern"

— A. Butterworth, IWC Workshop Report 2016


There is so much that needs to be done in terms of understanding our impacts on wild animal populations. Systematic and innovative research can reveal how wild populations are faring and can even provide insights into how humans cope with environmental change. AWE has years of theoretical and practical experience in conducting research in the wild, and works with clients to develop robust methodological, data analysis and reporting skills for a range of projects. AWE also participates in research by collecting the actual data, as in the marine conservation project in Patagonia described below.  We have recently started using drones to collect behavioural data, which has hugely expanded our research potential for wild cetaceans in particular. 

Can a wild animal's welfare be measured? 

Welfare is the balance of positive and negative affective states, i.e. how the animal is feeling, so if we can discuss captive animal welfare then certainly the phenomenon exists for wild animal as well. However, there are of course some differences in the approach to measuring wild animal welfare, with the main difficulty being access to the animals. Nevertheless, there are many non-invasive behavioural, physiological and cognitive measures available. Furthermore, innovations in technology (e.g. drones) are allowing us to get closer than ever before without disturbing the animals. A number of experts and specialist bodies are speaking out in support of integrating animal welfare principles into wild animal research and conservation: they believe it will help in our understanding of environmental threats, and better connect the public to the issues at hand. Collaborations are called for between species experts in the wild and those for captive animals: such multidisciplinary approaches are crucial as there will be some welfare measures in common. At AWE we aim to bridge the gap between wild and captive experts and offer pioneering services evaluating the welfare of wild animals.

Examples of wild animal projects


Photo credit: Will Darwin/Blue Marine Foundation

Cetacean research in remote Chilean Patagonia

Chilean Patagonia contains one of the largest fjord systems in the world, and is also one of the remotest places on the planet. Research in the area is therefore hard to conduct, and Isabella has become involved with Patagonia Projects, a pioneering NGO committed to conducting marine conservation projects in the area. In 2018, Isabella went on a 6 week long expedition where she developed behavioural data collection methodologies for the project, with the aim of discovering and tracking the cetacean species in the area. 


During this expedition, Isabella and the team were able to establish the first killer whale ID catalogue for the area, where the unique dorsal fins for each individual sighted are used to understand which killer whales return to the area year on year. The results of this element of the project were presented as a poster at the 2019 conference "Ciencias del Mar" (27th-31st May, Iquique, Chile): see the poster here. The team also recorded the first blue whale observed in the area, which are still an endangered species and facing many threats throughout their range. The whale was observed feeding in the Golfo de Penas study area, a great sign that this region is supporting a rich and healthy ecosystem! 

In collaboration with the Blue Marine Foundation, Isabella continues to support Patagonia Projects in their research program and plans to return to Chile in the near future!

Animal welfare as a central component of WAP's campaign on impacts of marine debris

In an innovative campaign to raise awareness about marine debris, WAP (formerly WSPA) focussed on the impacts to animal welfare at the individual level. Isabella was a co-author on the keystone report and applied welfare principles to the entanglement situations being seen in a number of marine species. The report highlighted how extremely detrimental to welfare marine debris can be - hailed by some as the greatest cause of suffering to wildlife in current times -  and stimulated further initiatives on reducing ocean plastic and ghost gear by government bodies and NGOs. 

Workshops on wild cetacean welfare 

Wild cetaceans face numerous anthropogenic threats, and solutions are needed to reduce their impact and raise public awareness. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has started an initiative to explore "Non-hunting threats to cetacean welfare", holding a workshop in 2016 (see report) and developing an Action Plan for the next few years, for which AWE has been involved in discussions. In 2018 along with Dr Karen Stockin, an AWE advisor,  Isabella co-chaired the "Welfare in the Wild" workshop at the European Cetacean Society (see info) which introduced the potential for welfare science principles to be applied to cetacean conservation projects (publication in preparation). Find out about upcoming workshops by checking our publications page. 

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

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