Animal Welfare: An Organizational Priority

We’ve invited guest author Dr. Jill Mellen to provide insight into the question of how zoos and aquariums can develop a welfare program that addresses the AZA’s new accreditation standard (1.5.0). Dr. Jill Mellen worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom as their Education & Science Director for almost 20 years, and is currently working to help zoos and aquariums address their animal welfare programs.

A Bit of History

In 2017, AZA added new animal welfare standards to its accreditation process--standard (1.5.0) states that accredited zoos and aquariums must have a process in place for assessing the welfare of their animals. After some input from members (yes, you!) the AZA website now includes lots of helpful information--a welfare program template (AZA Animal Welfare Program Template) and examples of existing programs (AZA Accreditation Resource Center). However, before we dive deeper into the process of program development, let’s define some terms.

What is this Thing Called Animal Welfare?

Animal welfare is an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional state measured over a period of time on a continuum from good to poor. The discipline of animal welfare is based in science. The study of animal welfare in zoo and aquarium animals draws on a long history of scientific studies of farm/food animals. Animal welfare differs significantly from the concept of animal rights. In contrast to the science-based concept of animal welfare, animal rights is a belief system like your religious beliefs and political convictions. At its most extreme, the animal rights perspective is that sentient[1] animals should have the same moral rights as humans. The animal rights belief system is based on ethical concerns for animals and focuses on whether animals should be used in certain ways (e.g., kept in zoos, raised on farms for milk, experimented upon), not on how animals should be managed if they are used in these ways.

Regardless of how well animals are housed, enriched, trained, fed, and so on, an extreme animal rights standpoint would still contend that it is wrong to keep animals in professional care, no matter what they are used for or how they are housed. These are ethical, moral discussions.  Looking at this belief system as a continuum, at one end, some people feel that animals should have the same rights as humans; while at the other end, some feel that animals deserve few to no rights. We all fall at some point on this continuum--most of us somewhere in the middle.

Back to the science of animal welfare, here’s what we know about animal welfare and assessing animal welfare:

  • There is no single measure of welfare—we need multiple variables to assess welfare.

  • Animal welfare historically has been assessed at the individual animal level. New techniques are being developed for assessing the welfare of animals housed in large groups (e.g., a Caribbean reef tank with multiple taxa).

  • Welfare of an animal can change at any time based on environmental, health or psychological factors.

  • The welfare of an individual animal can range from poor to good.

  • Our charge is to create a situation where animals thrive under human care.

How Do I Assess Animal Welfare?

The AZA template describes using a framework to begin the assessment process, i.e., components important to good welfare: nutrition, environment, health, behavior, and opportunities for choice and control. In practice, we focus both on inputs (resources we provide like enrichment, diet, habitat and things the animal “brings” to the table, like early rearing experience and medical issues, as well as outputs (animal-based indicators of welfare). Outputs include physical indicators of welfare such as growth rate, coat, feather, scale condition, weight; physiological indicators such as immune and adrenal functions; and behavior like play, exploration, and stereotypy. It’s important to assess both positive and negative indicators of welfare because if we only list indicators of poor welfare, frankly, poor welfare is all we’re going to find.  

Numerous zoos and aquariums have begun developing welfare assessment forms, using a framework similar to the one described above. Most of these assessment forms include an overabundance of inputs and far fewer outputs. For example, most forms ask about enrichment: “Does the animal receive enrichment?” A better way to ask that question is: “Does the animal utilize the enrichment in a species-appropriate manner?” The first is an input; the second is an output. As we assess the welfare of our animals, it’s probably more relevant to assess their actual welfare (output) than it is to assess inputs such as an enrichment program. Both are important, but recording outputs requires you to actually observe the animal, as opposed to asking about inputs, which can be assessed without leaving your office.

Recommendations for Developing Your Welfare Assessment Process

  1. Don’t start from scratch. Look at the programs and assessment processes that other zoos and aquariums have developed. Identify what you like and don’t like about other programs, then build your own. AZA’s Resource Center has examples.

  2. Check your most recent accreditation materials. Many of the primary components of a welfare program are already described in your existing accreditation materials. Review those documents while “wearing your welfare hat” and integrate those welfare-related documents into your welfare process.

  3. Be prepared with a process to assess welfare related to significant events or changes, e.g., new construction, new concert series.

  4. As you identify your point of contact/driver for your welfare program, make sure the person or committee has both the authority and responsibility to act on welfare issues. Many zoos and aquariums are adding welfare to existing responsibilities of staff members (especially those who manage enrichment and training programs)—this is a reasonable approach for your organization, but make sure that person has not only the responsibility but also the necessary authority.  

  5. Take your whole team on ‘the journey’ of developing a welfare program. Use a cross section of staff to develop, test, adjust and revise your process. Keep your entire staff apprised of the process and program as it develops. With the involvement of a cross-section of staff, you’ll gain more buy-in and a better product.

  6. Remember that the purpose of developing this assessment process is to enhance the welfare of your animals. That seems like an obvious statement but we all tend to get caught up in the process for the sake of process or because “AZA wants it.”

As a leader in the zoo and aquarium industries, Zoo Advisors is constantly providing value to our clients, including bringing in outside experts to comment on current topics. We invite you to contact us to discuss animal welfare or other planning needs.

Stay tuned for a “part two” of this topic where we’ll explore the challenges of conducting animal welfare assessments.

[1] sentience: any animal that can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress (applicable to mammals, birds, reptiles, many amphibians, fish and some invertebrates).