Assessing Welfare in Zoos And Aquariums

Article by Georgina Groves, Executive Director Wild Welfare

How can we assess how an animal is feeling in zoos and aquariums? It’s hard enough understanding how a human is feeling and we can ask them! Historically, there has been a health-centric approach to welfare management. Health is easier to quantify as the assessment of it uses observable measures such as body condition or whether the animal is eating or breeding. But these don’t truly tell us how the animal is actually feeling. An animal’s physical health is of course important but animal health is only one principle of an animal’s overall welfare state. 

Regularly being able to assess the welfare of animals under our care is critical to determine their quality of life. Ultimately, we assess animal welfare to determine whether the care we are providing is sufficient for the animal’s well-being.  Contemporary trends in animal welfare science focus on the psychological aspect of animals, thus, zoos and aquariums need to assess how an animal may be feeling (affective state), to evaluate how successful they are at maintaining good animal welfare.

Modern zoos and aquariums are now starting to use sophisticated scientific methods of doing this. Directly measuring the affective state of an animal is impossible, however, there are several ways of assessing it which can help to build a bigger picture. From motivational tests such as judgment or cognitive bias testing to regular behavioural monitoring. Utilising our knowledge of an animal’s sentient and emotional capacity, and behavioural and physical changes, can lead us to determine an animal’s welfare experience. These sorts of measures are considered to be output based  – measurements that consider how an animal acts and reacts in their environment is always meaningful (behaviour tells us a lot about how the animal is feeling), and can often be a good indicator of an animal’s welfare.

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Discussing welfare behavioural observation reports with a zoo as part of a follow up to a welfare audit we carried out.

Wild Welfare’s goal is to encourage learning and behavioural changes within zoos and aquariums that ensures a long lasting change to the husbandry and management provided. We want these facilities to move away from the more traditional health observations that can limit understanding and the application of good animal care.  However often output based measures are not possible within zoos and aquariums around the world due  multiple factors such as a lack of resources, technical expertise or awareness to conduct such measures. Because of this, we start by focusing on input based measures that consider instead, how the care we provide for the animals impacts their welfare. 

To assess an animal’s welfare we want to know what aspects of the environment could impact how that animal is feeling. Different species and individuals will respond and react differently to an environment, so it’s important to have a thorough understanding of that species natural biology and behaviour. Another really important aspect of good welfare is allowing for an animal to have choice and control over its environment.  Choice allows an animal to react to its environment (different food, substrate, mate choice etc) while control allows an animal to change its environment (for example choosing when to activate a movement automatized shower if they’re hot!). We can relate this to how you or I might be feeling ourselves. When you can’t choose what to eat, when you can’t choose what to do or where to go, how does this make you feel – frustrated, bored? Creating that empathetic connection helps us understand and care about what we are doing.

Functionally what does this mean? It means captive facilities should be providing environments that facilitate and promote those rewarding experiences specific to that individual. Keepers should want to work towards eliciting positive feelings that might include contentment or satisfaction, and mitigate negative experiences that result in feelings such as fear, anxiety or chronic stress. Using this knowledge we can create an assessment checklist that considers all the observable physical and behavioural environmental factors that we, as carers (whether keepers or vets) have influence over. Our own checklist is around 110 questions covering  various topics. For example, it is important to question enclosure design and access (do we give animals control over all of their environment or do we shut them indoors/outdoors at times that suit us but may not suit them)?  Environmental enrichment is another important factor because the size of an enclosure isn’t everything – it’s what the animal can do and react to in that space that is important.  Diet quality and choices, social opportunities, security/refuge, pro and reactive veterinary care, are all examples of some of the other factors we investigate. An assessment covers a whole zoo, not just one species, and we assess this checklist against an extensive standard that details the fundamental requirements in animal care.

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During our welfare audits we try and create opportunities to discuss what we are observing with the zoo staff and encourage their involvement as much as possible.

The majority of animal management practices that impinge on an animal’s well-being can be improved by understanding what the animal needs and how it is reacting to its current environment. Making simple changes to practices from how you feed  (is it meeting the animal’s natural feeding behaviours?)  to how your clean out enclosures ( do you shut the animals in for a long time or have you trained them in recall so you can swiftly clean out the enclosure and minimise restricting their choices?) Providing more choices and control for the animals  can significantly improve an animal’s welfare.  However there are also some management practices that simple cannot be improved regardless of changes. From mutilation procedures such as pinioning of birds to restraint such as tethering, these will always restrict an animal and prevent good welfare. We consider these practices to be non-negotiable practices and during our assessments we would mark these as a concern that requires immediate action. You can find out what our non-negotiable practices are here.

How does this assessment and standard framework help zoos struggling to understand and improve their welfare standards? Utilisation of a standard that informs and directs the fundamental requirements in animal care is the first step towards improvement.  A checklist that embodies the ideology of the standard and a zoo that can develop its own literature (incorporating necessary cultural or legislative differences) while conforming to recognised care standards is another way towards improvements. By reviewing the application of human care within a whole collection, this framework also does not discriminate any particular species, avoiding taxa bias.  While assessing zoos, we are often asked to prioritise our time assessing charismatic megafauna such as primates or big cats, and the zoo staff are surprised to find that they must give appropriate consideration towards the welfare of animals used for prey and live feeding. This creates opportunities for dialogue on what animal welfare really means, how all animals have the capacity to suffer and what practices can be taken to mitigate this suffering. This whole collection approach can also address general management practices that can have an impact on a large number of individual animals.  Current and future planning which considers specific species welfare measures is also encouraged. For example, we consistently see poor population management, resulting in over-crowding, conflict and consequent solitary confinement for highly social species (due to facilities rotating animals to reduce the conflict.)  Because of a lack of appropriate physical infrastructure, these individuals are  kept in solitude and often in extremely unsuitable environments for extended periods of time. Protocols and resolutions to conflict as a result of overcrowding should be in place. While our checklist provides questions on the validity of temporary quarters and the maintenance of holding social species in solitude, it also addresses the facilities ability to resource for all animals under its care.

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Knowing the species behavioural needs is really important. Primarily nocturnal, porcupine require soft deep substrate to dig in and plenty of refuge spaces to choose to hide in. A lack of refuge and soft substrate can leave porcupine frustrated and stressed. Simple changes to an enclosure really can make a difference to an animal’s well-being.

Utilising the standard in conjunction with the assessment checklist, zoological staff can use this framework, with or without supervision, dependent on their level of species care knowledge. Even with only a basic knowledge, our checklist is designed to lead the assessor through a series of questions that help create a forensic care and welfare landscape picture.  This facilitates challenging outdated management practices that have a negative impact on animal welfare,, as well as encouraging engagement in a more complete approach to welfare management.

Assessing primary care parameters on a whole zoological collection, based on a standard welfare “duty of care” framework, can become a good starting point for facilities to initiate a more sophisticated animal welfare programme with species-specific welfare measures and care. It can serve as a globally applicable and easily understandable system to assess the welfare of animals in zoos and aquariums, with the aim of promoting the animals’ physical and psychological condition. Wild Welfare believes implementing the framework outlined here can help inspire zoos and aquariums in all regions of the world to embrace modern zoological practices and raise their standards of animal care.

For More information on Wild Welfare’s Assessments>>

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About Wild Welfare

Wild Welfare is a global organisation committed to improving animal welfare for captive wild animals. By uniting the world’s leading zoos, zoo associations and animal welfare organisations, we build trusting partnerships that help provide long-term solutions to critical wild animal welfare issues.

Our vision is to end the suffering of captive wild animals around the world and ensure full and sustainable protection is given to all animals in human care. Find out more at Registered charity in England (no.1165941).

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