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Human Behaviour Change and Animal Welfare

The current approaches to changing human behaviour towards animal welfare
giraffe and zebra graze in a paddock in a zoo

Human behaviour change and animal welfare

In September, Wild Welfare will be presenting at the first ever International Human Behaviour Change For Animal Welfare Conference. This is an exciting opportunity to explore, discuss and debate the current approaches to changing human behaviour towards animal welfare, a topic that is highly relevant to the work we are doing in zoos and aquariums.

Historically, zoo animal welfare improvements have taken a standard approach; a survey of the facility is carried out, observations made where areas are of concern and advice provided on how to improve it. Training may follow this on a specific topic such as animal enrichment, husbandry practices, record keeping or practical handling and care. However despite these efforts, poor animal care and consequent welfare often continues.

Sub-standard animal care and poor welfare is often attributed to a lack of resources and investment in expertise, however through our experience, while limited resources can effect the level of care provided, many cases of poor animal welfare and suffering in zoos is rarely due fully to the this “hardware” problem, but rather caused by the “software” problem; the people in charge of caring for the animals and their attitude towards this role. Apathy, a lack of interest and/or engagement towards their duty of care towards the animals are among the reasons as to why poor animal welfare perseveres, but before we become too quick to criticise we should remember that many of these staff have had not had access to education, are paid a minimal salary and are offered no other incentive to carry out their jobs.

But while this unfailing attitude exists, so will poor animal welfare. The phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” springs to mind when discussing the importance of human behaviour change and its essential role in improving animal welfare. One can provide the resources, training or other means to encourage improvements, but essentially it is up to those individuals caring for the animals as to whether they want to use those resources or take that advice, and that is where encouraging attitude and behavioural changes comes into play.

So what can be done? How do we challenge this indifference and how can we create an environment that encourages a significant shift in attitude and behaviour towards animal care? Installing confidence, encouraging inclusivity and creating environments that are based on solving problems, rather than just being told what to do all helps encourage change. But perhaps the most important tool is to encourage a connection between the people and animals. Empathy helps breed compassion and understanding and people act on the things they care about and understand.

By providing novel training programmes that compare the emotional similarities between humans and animals and connecting how practical husbandry care can support positive emotions and welfare we can produce an objective but emotionally involved response that can improve attitudes towards animal care. It can help drive forward practices that promote positive welfare approaches to captive wild animal care and inspires a cultural change in the sub-standard zoo and aquarium approach to welfare management.