In order to assess animal welfare we must first understand what animal welfare means. In the past, animal welfare assessments have often focused on the health of the animal and other physical measures. They are easiest to quantify as are usually observable measures such as body condition. But now there is an increasing emphasis that assessments should be considering the affective states (emotions and feelings) of an animal when measuring their welfare.
We can’t ask an animal how they are feeling, so is it possible to assess? While measuring how an animal is feeling is not easy, there are increasingly more studies demonstrating that it is possible. We can relate studies to human emotional measures, and we can use intuitive inference – certain behaviours are intuitively likely to reflect certain affective states (emotions and feelings). Understanding the natural species biology and hence the physical and phycological needs is also critical as are knowing the individual’s character and preferences. How and animal acts and reacts in their environment is always meaningful and can often be a good indicator of an animal’s welfare, as through their behaviour an animal is communicating it’s feelings.
Animal welfare encompasses both the affective (emotional) and physical state of an animal. However, often only 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 the welfare of the animal.
While these measures can give some idea about the environment and condition the animal is in, they do not inform us as to what the the animal is feeling and consequently its well-being. Assessing numerical measures alone means we cannot really know if the animal’s welfare is good or not.
An outcome or output-based measure is more easily linked to the emotional/affective aspect of animal welfare. Outcome or output effectively refers to what can the animal do, how can it behave within the conditions and care it has been given? And how consistently can it behave like this? Aligning to current welfare frameworks, measures can look at identifying rewarding goal-directed behaviours from the animals. For example, can a tiger carry out natural and normal behaviours such as stalking, marking, bathing etc, within its enclosure and how often can it carry out these behaviours?
We encourage zoos to move away from using only prescribing numerical measures or minimum-based standards but instead look at outcome or output-based measures.
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.
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, 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.
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:
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 and encouraging positive feeding behaviours to providing appropriate social groupings and species-appropriate enrichment, often simple changes can significantly improve an animal’s welfare.
Some management practices however, cannot simply be improved and we consider them unacceptable or non-negotiable practices. If we observe these practices during our welfare assessment process, we recommend that they must cease for animal welfare to improve.