A Potential New Way To Assess Wild Animal Welfare
In the past, many methods of determining and categorising the welfare of captive animals have been used, even on wild species that are captive. However, little has been done in the way of free-roaming (non-captive) wild species.
In this paper, researchers lay out a new ten-step protocol, developed to systematically determine the welfare status of wild animals. This standardized process uses some species-specific information, as well as physical indicators, and would create an overview of animals’ current as well as future welfare. The researchers developed this model by looking specifically at free-roaming horses as an example species.
The general aim of their new strategy was to combine conservation research with welfare research. Having knowledge of an animal’s welfare could directly impact the conservation decisions implemented for that species. Their work was based on something called the Five Domains Model, a well-accepted system for the assessment of animal welfare. Four of the domains tell us about the animal’s physical experiences: nutrition/hydration, environment, health, and behaviour. Each is rated positive to negative. The fifth domain takes all of these experiences into account to determine a rating for the mental domain.
The ten stages are as follows:
1. Understand some of the main principles of conservation welfare.
Conservation welfare is a relatively new field that combines previous knowledge of conservation approaches with more recent welfare science. Conservation research has usually prioritised measuring fitness and physical states while measures of welfare focus more on ‘affective states’, or the feelings, of the animals. Combining these to assess wild animal welfare is crucial as it allows a researcher to use physical measures to suggest something about the animal’s internal experience.
2. Understand how the Five Domains Model is used in the assessment of animal welfare.
Learning how each domain affects an animal and the outcome of its welfare assessment is important before using the method to assess any individual.
3. Get species-specific information for each domain of the model.
As this system is designed for researchers to use in a variety of studies on wild animals, it is important the specific context of that study is taken into consideration. This involves understanding the needs of the species in question. For example, its water requirements (physical domain), habitat preferences (environment domain), disease susceptibility (health domain), or common social behaviours (behaviour domain).
4. Create a list of possible indicators for each physical domain
These indicators must be measurable or observable and may be animal-based (e.g. body condition) or resource-base (e.g. food quality in the animal’s area). This list may also include ‘welfare alerting indices’ which do not directly show anything about current welfare status but may suggest something about the future of the animal’s welfare.
5. Find a method to identify animals reliably.
Being able to distinguish between individuals of a population is important for an accurate assessment of each animal’s welfare status.
6. Select which methods to use for measuring potential welfare indices, given the context of the study.
Only those methods that are practical within the context of the location and behaviour of the species should be considered.
7. Choose a previously validated method for each of the Five Domains.
From the list generated in Stage 6, one method is chosen for each of the domains. ‘Previously validated’ means that a relationship between the indicator and welfare status has been proven before by other research.
8. Use the new version of the model with your chosen methods to grade each of the Five Domains.
Within each domain the “welfare enhancement”, positive experiences, and “welfare compromise”, negative experiences, are graded. See the figure below for a summary. The grading given for the fifth “mental” domain is usually the worst of the gradings given in domains one to four, to emphasize the most negative aspect of the animal’s experience, and the effect of this on their mental state.
The authors purposely do not use a number system for rating the Five Domains, as this may lead to a misunderstanding of how precise these ratings are. The assessment is done in a qualitative way, and numbered scores may give the false idea that quantitative methods or analyses were used. Instead, the authors suggest a scale using grading from A (best) to E (worst).
9. Give a confidence score to show how certain you are about the data influencing the welfare status
This is to give an idea of how certain we can be about the welfare status researchers have arrived at, and whether it should be trusted. If the confidence score is low it may suggest some limitations of the method used to get the data.
10. Using the same methods chosen previously, assess each domain for future welfare risk.
This allows researchers to use the same method to predict future developments in the animal’s welfare, which can help inform whether any conservation or welfare strategies need to be implemented.
This ten-step method uses subjective grading combined with previously proven methods to create a comprehensive overview of an animal’s current welfare status, as well as identifying any future risks to welfare. This methodology can be applied to many species and should give a standardized procedure so that the welfare of wild animals can be compared across species and across time. This kind of assessment can prove very valuable in the conservation of a species, and wildlife advocates may find it broadly applicable in their work.