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Why the missing ingredient to improving animal welfare, is so often understanding what really matters to animals

Dr Jake Veasey

May 8, 2023

Unlocking the secrets to animal welfare - Care for the Rare sheds light on how we establish what really matters to animals to inform our habitat designs and management plans. We also explain how a failure to identify and focus on the actual needs of species in many enrichment programs is negatively impacting welfare.

The image above illustrates two normal, natural behaviours; hunting and evading a predatory attack. Despite the biological significance of both, it's hopefully self-evident that the potential welfare impacts of each behaviour in captivity would be profoundly different. This in turn illustrates an important point that can often be overlooked; not all normal natural opportunities are equally important for captive welfare - and some may in fact have a negative impact.

Understanding the value of naturally occurring behaviours, as well as cognitive processes, and opportunities species encounter in the wild, to their welfare in captivity, has the potential to revolutionise both how we care for animals, and how we design their habitats.

Currently, we tend to determine the relative value of opportunities available to captive animal welfare by comparing the welfare of individuals in different habitats, or before and after specific management or facility interventions. But there are some fundamental problems with relying on these comparative animal welfare assessments as a basis for welfare management and facility design, and these go far beyond our limited ability to accurately assess welfare, and establish causal relationships between welfare and the array of variables capable of influencing it!

I know all of this sounds counterintuitive or even heretical, but bear with me!

Firstly, comparative welfare assessments likely flatter interventions, for example, is the reason that most published enrichment studies show a positive impact on animal welfare down to our proficiency in providing enrichment, or is it because any intervention can temporarily enhance welfare from a low baseline? The widespread use of generic enrichment strategies, not necessarily tailored to the needs of each species tends to suggest the latter. Secondly and perhaps most significantly, even if the accuracy of comparative welfare assessments could be guaranteed, they would still be incapable of assessing the value of opportunities not available to captive animals. How for example, can we objectively assess the value of deep diving to captive marine animals that cannot dive deeply, or migration to migratory species that cannot migrate? Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting we stop attempting to assess welfare, only that we expand our toolkit to address these glaring deficiencies. 

The Animal Welfare Priority Identification System (AWPIS©) was developed to address these issues by assessing the value of naturally occurring behaviours and cognitive processes, whether animals can express them in captivity or not. AWPIS does this by harnessing the collective knowledge of a wide range of experts who objectively evaluate the relative evolutionary significance of naturally occurring cognitive and behavioural opportunities, as well as motivational characteristics, and welfare impacts, where they are known.

This system is based on the relationship between evolution and animal welfare whereby behaviours and cognitive processes of high evolutionary significance, are typically more powerfully, and frequently motivated, resulting in greater welfare impacts when they are frustrated. This is of course dependant upon the nature of the motivation; externally triggered behaviours or cognitive processes such as evading predatory attacks, are less likely to qualify as welfare needs than those which arise regardless of the environment the animal is in, such as for example the desire to sleep.

As a result of its radically different approach, AWPIS assessments are fundamentally changing our understanding of, and approach to the needs of animals, and the design of their habitats.

For example, for decades, tiger enrichment has centred around hunting behaviours, whereas AWPIS has revealed that both wild and captive tigers have a flexible relationship with hunting - if they find, steal or are given a meal of sufficient size, their motivation to hunt is effectively eliminated with little or no negative welfare impact. However, in captivity, smaller, more frequent feeds designed to maximise "enrichment" opportunities, actually creates a state in which animals are permanently motivated to seek hunting opportunities, in circumstances in which they permanently frustrated in their ability to do so. As this example demonstrates, enrichment, management or facility design, without a deep, nuanced understanding of a species' needs, has the potential to have a profoundly negative impact on welfare.

In contrast to hunting however, the AWPIS assessment for tigers indicated that regardless of how recently they fed, wild tigers need to maintain a territory, which involves intentional travel and information gathering, and that this “need” persists in captivity, which explains why tiger stereotypies - (pacing), are so clearly linked to travel rather than hunting.

Comparable revelations have emerged for other species assessed, and so as experts prepare to gather virtually for our next assessment on Orangutan, hosted by Zoos Victoria with support from the Auckland Zoo, we are all excited about what we might learn about their needs, and how that might improve their welfare through innovations in management and facility design.

In the coming weeks in conjunction with Four Paws International, we’ll be launching an assessment for another iconic species, but one which hasn’t had the welfare attention it likely deserves – make sure to follow us to find out more.

#animalwelfare #welfarescience #zoo #sanctuary #zoodesign #carefortherare #conservation #innovation

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