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In order to assess animal welfare we must first understand what animal welfare means. The science of animal welfare has been around for about 30 years, but it has historically been very difficult to define welfare and there is no existing single, unified definition of animal welfare. In the past, welfare assessment focused on health and other physical measures, but now there is an increasing emphasis on the affective states (emotions) of an animal. However, there is still no common agreement on how these affective states can be measured and as such, this has lead to measurable indices being used that are not always addressing the true nature of welfare. 

Perceptions of animal welfare are culturally sensitive, globally variable and subject to change through time. Despite these differences, an animal’s own perspective of its welfare remains the same. With regards to zoos, given these challenges in defining what animal welfare is and how to measure it, it can create difficulties in systematically measuring and improving animal welfare across multiple institutions, habitats and species. 


Affective States – What Are They? 

Animal Welfare refers to the mental/emotional or affective state of the animal. In simple terms, an affective state can be negative, neutral or positive.

A Negative State: experiences that animals try to avoid – fear, hunger, pain, i.e. those experiences an animal is motivated to minimise.

A Positive State: occurs when physical needs – nutritional, behavioural, health and environmental – are met. i.e. those experiences an animal is motivated to maximise.

A Neutral State: are experiences where the animal is neither experiencing positive or negative states.

Good welfare is not just about minimising negative states. It is also about promoting positive states.

Isn’t this all a bit anthropomorphic? 

Criticism towards the use of emotional language and measures within welfare assessment is inevitable and anthropomorphism has historically been seen as a “dirty” word in animal behaviour studies and animal care. However, biologist Gordon Burghardt, defined ‘critical anthropomorphism’ — using our own human intuition, feelings and understanding as a starting point for comprehending animal cognition; that using the sentience of the observer to generate hypotheses about the state of that animal’s welfare in light of scientific knowledge of the species and the environment it occupies – is valid. That in identifying with that animal’s own perception of its environment, one can make informed decisions about its care and welfare.


An animal’s emotional state can be considered as the immediate response to a particular stimuli. For example, excitement.


An animal’s mood can be be considered to be the more long-term state (hours, days or even weeks) that an animal feels. For example, contentment. 

The Discrete Emotional Theory believes there are a set of basic emotions that are distinguishable by expression and biological processes. These basic emotions are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.  

The Dimensional Emotional Theory believes action of a small number of underlying systems can generate or construct many mental categories of feelings, including discrete emotions. The Core Affect is a neurophysiological state that underlies simply feeling good or bad, drowsy or energised and can account for the differing mental categories in the same way as the dimensional theory. 

Can We Really Assess An Animal’s Mood? 

If measuring affective states is hard in humans, is it possible to do in animals?  While measuring an animal’s mood or affective state is not easy, there are increasingly more studies demonstrating that it is possible. Firstly we can relate to our studies on human emotional measures. Assuming we are looking for discrete emotions for example, we can study facial expressions and neurophysiological profiles in animals to help determine animal emotions and moods. Or we can use cognitive bias, telomere attrition or hippocampus neurogenesis measures to determine possible emotions within the Core Affect model. But there is no simple one to one relationship between a state and measures and the human model may only be translatable to closely related species.

We can also use Intuitive Inference – certain behaviours are intuitively likely to reflect certain affective states. Particular situations are intuitively likely to generate particular affective states. However again, non-evidence based inference can be wrong and there is potentially limited use in distantly related taxa.

Finally we can take a theoretical approach and assume certain behaviours reflect certain affective states. Emotions are elicited by rewarding or harmful stimuli.  A rewarding stimuli is anything that an animal will work for and a harmful one is anything that it will work to avoid. Working to avoid means they are in a negative state. These operational definitions are most likely to avoid anthropomorphism criticism.


Different Assessment Measures

Animal-based welfare measures should include a number of different assessment techniques.

Prescribed Measures

Animal welfare encompasses both the affective (emotional) and physical state of an animal.  However measuring an emotional state is hard enough in humans, let alone in animals where we can’t ask them how they feel! As a result, prescribed (numerical) measures such as the size of an enclosure, the depth of a pool, the nutritional content of food and the healthcare provided are often used to assess welfare. But this does not directly measure the animal’s affective state, but simply the care that is being provided. While this can and does have an important influence on how the animal feels, assessing numerical measures alone means we still cannot be certain when an animal is experiencing positive welfare.

Outcome-Based Measures

An outcome-based measure is more easily linked to the emotional/affective aspect of animal welfare. Aligning to current welfare frameworks, measures can look at identifying positive goal-directed behaviours from the animals. For example, can a tiger carry out natural and normal (positive) behaviours such as stalking, marking, bathing etc within its enclosure at all times? We encourage zoos to move away from using only prescribing numerical or minimum based standards to measure against, but instead look at out-come based measures. These outcome-based criteria are measurable in the sense that they are a product of the care provided. These measures also include behavioural studies such as cognitive bias and judgement bias research.

Wild Welfare’s Assessment Tools

Animal Collection & Enclosure Assessment

A Collection or Enclosure Assessment is a Systematic, Independent and Documented process for obtaining information about the whole of an animal collection (a collection is considered to be all animals held at a facility) or a specific enclosure, both in regards to an animal’s welfare. An assessment provides evidence and objective evaluation to determine the extent to which Assessment standard criteria are fulfilled.

Why carry out an Assessment?

Assessing a facility is a valuable management tool which can reveal major opportunities for animal welfare and operational improvement, as well as cost reduction. An Assessment can be used:

  1. To obtain factual input for management decisions
  2. To obtain unbiased management information
  3. To know factually if the zoo (facility) is at risk
  4. To identify areas of opportunity
  5. To improve continuous communication and motivation
  6. To assess individual performance based on facts
  7. To assess the status and capability of infrastructure
  8. To assist with training of all staff
A Good Assessment will provide objective, unbiased information and seek opportunities for improvement. It will aim to identify conformance with the agreed standard and effectiveness of the facility. 


Animal Enclosure Assessment Guidelines

Wild Welfare’s animal welfare enclosure assessment is a tool designed to gather information about a particular animal enclosure and identify animal welfare gaps and animal welfare opportunities, to provide conditions that are likely to facilitate positive welfare states in our animals.

The enclosure assessment allows for regular monitoring and aims to identify development and capacity in animal welfare knowledge by staff. It can also provide guidance on specific species improvements. 

This short assessment incorporates five sections, and is based around the five domain model of animal welfare compromise. The five sections have a total of 17 observations to be marked. The sections are 1) Environment (Physical and Social), 2) Nutrition, 3) Health, 4) Behaviour and 5) Animal Care.

Collection Assessment Guidelines

Wild Welfare’s animal welfare collection assessment is a tool designed to gather information about the whole collection and identify animal welfare gaps and animal welfare opportunities to provide conditions that are likely to facilitate positive welfare states in our animals.

The collection assessment identifies the “animal welfare landscape” of a facility, and identifies gaps in animal care and management that can lead to a depression in animal welfare.  Our assessment is taken from our “Fundamental Welfare Requirements in Animal Care” and incorporates a wide range of assessment topics, and is based around the five domain model of animal welfare compromise. 

There are 110 questions in total, split into 5 sections (as laid our by the Mellor Five Domain Model, nutrition, environment, health, behaviour, mental state) and one miscellaneous section. In total the checklist encompasses the following: Veterinary Care, Animal Management, Behaviour and Mental Health, Food and Food Hygiene, Animal Records, Enclosures and Barriers, Visitors, Animal Contact & Training, Transactions and Transport, Health & Safety, Physical Facilities and Personnel.  All these sections have been identified as critical activities for effective management. At the beginning of the assessment checklist we have a short list of management practices we consider unacceptable and which we recommend should cease in order to provide for good animal welfare. These are called our “Non-Negotiables”.

Non-Negotiables in Animal Welfare Assessment

The majority of animal management practices that impinge on an animal’s welfare can be improved so they no longer have a negative impact. From changing diets, encouraging positive feeding behaviours, providing appropriate social groupings and species appropriate enrichment, often simple changes can significantly improve an animal’s welfare. However we believe some management practices cannot be simply improved and are unacceptable. During our assessment we consider these as non-negotiable practices that must cease in order to improve animal welfare. 

  • The feeding of live vertebrate animals to any animal (unless a written justification and ethical review process has been undertaken and agreed by senior staff weighing up the welfare of predator and prey)
  • Training techniques involving physical punishment, or training practices that compromise the animal’s physical or behavioural health, development or psychological well-being
  • Animal demonstrations that are detrimental to the physical or psychological well-being of the animals
  • Confinement in enclosures that severely restrict physical movement and compromise psychological wellbeing. This includes quarantine, off show, performance and breeding quarters.
  • Animal restraint that deliberately hinders an animal’s natural behaviour and movement through the use of an artificial restraint tool.
  • Mutilation procedures for cosmetic purposes or to make an animal safe for handling.
  • Unregulated feeding of the animals by visitors 
  • Unregulated breeding of animals                       
Click here for further information on our Non Negotiables


The Wild Welfare Assessment methodology is not a PASS/FAIL assessment. It is a forensic assessment designed to identify welfare concerns within a zoo and their source or origin.
The process aims to generate recommendations to management and can be used as a monitoring and evaluation tool.

Talk to us about developing an assessment plan today!

Contact us for help to develop animal welfare assessment at your zoo.

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