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Are We Asking the Right Questions About Animal Welfare in Zoos, Aquariums, or Sanctuaries?

Dr Jake Veasey

Dec 29, 2023

Introducing the Animal Welfare Fingerprint™

As the year draws to a close, it’s a great time for reflection, and for those in leadership roles in zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums, and sanctuaries, we tend to reflect on a wide range of issues ranging from financial sustainability to changes in our animal family, staff teams, and new facilities and programs launched over the course of the year.

But, for a multitude of reasons, reflecting on the changing status of our facility's capacity to maintain good animal welfare can be far more challenging. Issues associated with defining and measuring welfare against a backdrop of an ever-evolving understanding of the needs of wild animals and changing facility dynamics, add a layer of complexity to understanding changes in welfare status within large multi-species facilities over time. However, arguably, the most significant challenge arises from the fact that welfare is experienced and conventionally measured at the individual animal level, whereas establishing a robust understanding of welfare performance across a large and diverse wildlife facility, demands a fundamentally different approach to that used in conventional welfare assessments.

Evidence has to be a central tenet to effective zoo, aquarium, or sanctuary management, but I believe there is a chasm between prevailing welfare assessment paradigms, and the information required to effectively guide management, and communicate whole facility welfare performance to leadership teams, boards, municipalities, and other key stakeholders.

This realisation, which is based on decades of personal experience leading large wildlife attractions and working within the welfare science sector, has led Care for the Rare to develop, and continuously refine a unique, peer-reviewed, facility-wide animal welfare sequencing tool that genuinely stands out from anything currently deployed elsewhere. 

Habitat-based Animal Welfare Fingerprinting™

Established nearly a decade ago, and continuously refined in light of our evolving understanding of the needs of wild animals and to meet the ever-changing requirements of our dynamic industry, our facility-wide audit platform is designed to address the limitations of existing welfare assessment paradigms, but particularly in regard to providing an objective whole-facility welfare status assessments. Uniquely, our approach is layered – from detailed individual habitat-based assessments in the form of an Animal Welfare Fingerprint, through to whole-facility welfare heatmaps.

A different tool for a different job

In much the same way that a geneticist using a PCR machine to study wild animals might discover something as important but fundamentally different from an ecologist using satellite telemetry on the same species, our whole-facility welfare sequencing tool assesses welfare using a wider lens to that used in conventional assessments and in doing so provides unique insights crucial for effective wild animal management that would otherwise remain undiscovered. This approach is not intended to replace conventional assessment tools targeting individual animals, but instead provides a more holistic, actionable perspective on facility-wide welfare status, particularly when it comes to longer term strategic planning across an entire zoo, aquarium, wildlife park, or sanctuary.

By reviewing the ability of habitats to sustain welfare using as many as 20 performance criteria, our tool “sequences” welfare performance producing an Animal Welfare Fingerprint, unique to each habitat. Each individual habitat-based Animal Welfare Fingerprint, provides a clear domain-based assessment of welfare performance, which when considered collectively across a whole facility, and visualised with a heatmap, becomes an exceptionally powerful, actionable, performance management tool, enabling comparisons to be made between facilities and over time. Additionally, with Care for the Rare’s experienced team facilitating this collaborative process, our approach combines independent oversight whilst also leveraging the benefits of institutional expertise and experience.

Our tool, the algorithms that underpin it, and the report including a site-specific welfare heatmap are configured in such a way that the Animal Welfare Fingerprint of a Panamanian golden frog habitat could be compared directly with that of an Asian elephant by non-experts. This is possible because our process quantitatively assesses welfare performance through a series of species-specific lenses, and then aggregates and distills this data in a highly visual format.

Not only is this approach proving to be easily understood by diverse audiences, unique insights are emerging as a result of its use. When deploying a previous prototype whole facility-based approach, we discovered for the first time that species-specific behavioural, locomotor, and social opportunities influenced rates of abnormal behavioural expression across a diverse wildlife facility. Intriguingly, we also discovered these factors significantly influenced visitor perceptions of welfare, which in turn influenced visitor enjoyment of habitats.

Unprecedented insights like these wouldn't be attainable using conventional welfare assessment protocols. These insights and this approach, have at their foundation, decades of experience operating wildlife facilities, refining assessment methodologies, data handling protocols, and analysis, and are now revolutionising how we approach captive wild animal welfare, making it not just a vague ethical priority, but a key evidence-based imperative, capable of driving improvements in overall zoo, aquarium, wildlife park, or sanctuary performance, with ramifications beyond animal care.

2024 - Time to rethink animal welfare assessment and planning?

As we stand at the crossroads of the year gone by and look to the one ahead, we are excited to already have three forward thinking zoos and wildlife parks spread across three continents set to harness the power of this invaluable tool, to guide their long-term collection and master-planning, performance management, and facility design. In the hands of just such forward-thinking facilities, our welfare sequencing protocol and the Animal Welfare Fingerprint it produces for each habitat, becomes an exceptionally powerful tool for prioritising expenditure, anticipating challenges, and shaping a future where animal welfare takes centre stage, supporting visitor engagement and conservation advocacy.

If you're keen to understand how this innovative approach can elevate your zoo, wildlife park, aquarium, or sanctuary's welfare performance, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Happy New Year from all at Care for the Rare!

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