Introducing the first in a series of blogs examining animal welfare concepts with the Wild Welfare team. This month Director Simon Marsh explores the ways in which giving animals more choice, comfort and control over their lives is an important aspect of welfare enhancement.
What is good welfare? How do we determine the happiness of animals? And most importantly, what can be done to enhance the welfare of animals in captivity? These questions are simple to ask but can be complex to answer, and Wild Welfare has been working around the globe for over 10 years to address these questions.
The challenge begins with the very definition of animal welfare; there is not a single, agreed upon definition, and the welfare that every species and individual animal experiences is different. There are some tools which can help staff working in captive wild animal facilities, such as zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, and rescue centres, to measure the care they are providing and how the animals respond to that care (their welfare status). But it is often not accessible or easily utilisable so the animal’s welfare may go unassessed. This means that although staff continue to provide care for their animals, they are not able to assess whether those animals are experiencing good welfare in response to that care.
When Wild Welfare works with a captive animal facility, or a zoological association to deliver capacity building training, we often start with the basics to make sure everyone is on the same page. For example, we might explore some of the following topics:
- What does animal welfare mean to you?
- How do you currently assess animal welfare?
- Why is animal behaviour always meaningful?
- How does the care provided to the animals, (such as their nutrition, healthcare, and environment) influence the behaviour of the animal?
As we work in collaboration with the staff in those facilities to build capacity and knowledge, we provide resources too. This is an important process that fosters continued behaviour change in the staff working with the animals and across an institution or community. We provide the knowledge and skills in understanding what welfare means and how to provide appropriate care to achieve this. But, we still often come across those same welfare questions, mainly because there are still barriers in actually assessing if the animals are experiencing a good life and thriving.
Comfort, Choice, and Control: The Keys to Captive Animal Welfare
Our approach revolves around the three essential principles: Comfort, Choice, and Control. These three words can make a huge different to an animal’s life. They are often easy to carry out, involve small or no financial implications, can save staff time, improve staff-animal relationships, and most importantly improve the animal’s welfare. During training, we often discuss the impact of simple changes to a routine or environment revolving around these concepts which can have a positive and long-lasting impact on that individual or group of animals.
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
A state of physical and material well-being, with freedom from pain and trouble, and satisfaction of bodily needs; the condition of being comfortable.
A phrase we say a lot is that there is no concrete in the wild. Giving an animal a natural substrate (sand, soil, straw, leaves, bark chippings, mulch etc.) or an unnatural substrate (blankets/sacking, hammocks or beds made of firehose, rubber matting etc.) will allow them to rest or move without the pressure of a hard surface on their body or joints. We can all appreciate the thought of a comfortable chair or bed, and how many of us would like to sleep on a concrete floor? Studies show that by providing appropriate substrates for animals it increases the time they spend sleeping and resting.
Another physical aspect of comfort is the environment. Are we providing the correct temperature and humidity range for that species or individual animal for its life stage and condition? Within that environment does the animal feel secure? Is it living in an appropriate social group which it is comfortable in?
Also, is the animal free from pain and injury, is it comfortable in its own body? Is it receiving appropriate and timely healthcare and a nutritious and balanced diet?
By giving animals comfort you can improve their welfare and health which means there are less vet expenses and animals are more likely to be exhibiting normal or natural behaviours.
An act of choosing between two or more possibilities; something that you can choose.
Animals not having choice, or at least the perception of choice, is something we see a lot. Now, I’m not talking about giving animals the choice to roam outside of their enclosure (although this can happen for certain species if it is safe for the animals and the public and it is legal with that country). What we see all too often is animals shut out of their house or night quarters during the day and then shut in at night, away from their enclosure. Again, this may be a legal requirement for some species in some countries but more often than not it is an action carried out across a whole facility without questioning whether it is needed or just a traditional practice handed down throughout the years. There is also a desire to guarantee that animals are always visible to the public. However, some studies for species such as polar bears have shown that if they have the choice of where to go, they will only spend 2% of their time away from public view. Having the choice is more important than using the choice. The option to choose where the bears wanted to go also showed a significant reduction in stereotypic and stress related behaviours.
By giving animals choice they feel like they have more freedom over their own lives. It can reduce stress by allowing them to choose where they spend their time, when or where they feed, and where they rest.
The ability or power to decide or strongly influence the particular way in which something will happen, or someone will behave, or the condition of having such ability or power.
When we talk about, control we are not looking at what control we have over the animals in our care (husbandry) but the control the animals have over their own lives.
So, when we talk about control it refers to how an animal interacts with its environment. Is the animal able to choose a favourite area to sleep in, therefore exhibiting control via their choices. Can they decide how and when to consume their diet? If we create a suitable habitat and a variety of ways animals can interact with each other or their environment, as well as what and when they carry out behaviours, then we are enabling opportunities for animals to have control over their lives.
By reducing our own control over the animals’ lives, giving them comfort, choice and control, we can improve their welfare and potentially reduce staff time on carrying out practices which inadvertently reduce welfare. This will give staff more time to monitor the animals more closely, providing more proactive care, and create environments and diets for the animals to encourage natural behaviours.
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