Protocol to assess welfare of wild animals developed

Examples of externally observable animal-based indices that provide information about welfare status. (a) An emaciated mare with a body condition score of 1/9, with a stunted yearling; (b) A horse with a left hind lower limb injury; (c) Diarrhoeic faeces, indicative of gastrointestinal disease such as parasitism. Images: A.M. Harvey

A 10-stage protocol that enables biologists to scientifically assess the welfare of wild animals has been developed by researchers, using free-roaming horses as an example.

The scientists from Australia and New Zealand say their protocol should lead to significant advances in the field of wild animal welfare.

Andrea Harvey and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, say knowledge of the welfare status of wild animals is vital for informing debates around the ways we interact with them and their habitats.

“Currently, there is no published information about how to scientifically assess the welfare of free-roaming wild animals during their normal day-to-day lives,” they wrote.

In part, this is because the methodology has not been developed.

Harvey and Daniel Ramp, both with the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology in Sydney, together with Ngaio Beausoleil and David Mellor, with the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University in New Zealand, set out to devise a suitable protocol.

The system they developed emphasises the importance of having an understanding of animal welfare in a conservation context and also of the well-established Five Domains Model for assessing welfare.

The Five Domains Model of Animal Welfare.
The Five Domains Model of Animal Welfare are nutrition, environment, health, behavior and mental state.

The Five Domains Model is a science-based structure for assessing animal welfare, providing a best-practice framework to assess welfare in animals. The domains are nutrition, environment, health, behavior and mental state.

The authors describe their protocol as follows:

  1. Acquire an understanding of the principles of Conservation Welfare;
  2. Acquire an understanding of how the Five Domains Model is used to assess welfare status;
  3. Acquire species-specific knowledge relevant to each Domain of the Model;
  4. Develop a comprehensive list of potential measurable/observable indicators in each physical domain, distinguishing between welfare status and welfare alerting indices;
  5. Select a method or methods to reliably identify individual animals;
  6. Select methods for measuring/observing the potential welfare indices and evaluate which indices can be practically measured/observed in the specific context of the study;
  7. Apply the process of scientific validation for those indices that are able to be measured/observed, and insert validated welfare status indices into the Five Domains Model;
  8. Using the adjusted version of the Model that includes only the validated and practically measurable/observable welfare status indices, apply the Five Domains grading system for grading welfare compromise and enhancement within each Domain;
  9. Assign a confidence score to reflect the degree of certainty about the data on which welfare status has been graded;
  10. Including only the practically measurable/observable welfare alerting indices, apply the suggested system for grading future welfare risk within each Domain.

“Applying this 10-stage protocol will enable biologists to scientifically assess the welfare of wild animals and should lead to significant advances in the field of wild animal welfare.”

Harvey and her colleagues say the protocol illustrates how the Five Domains Model can be systematically applied to assess the welfare of individual free-roaming wild animals.

“This paper, therefore, forms a template for making such welfare assessments in free-roaming wild terrestrial species by applying the principles outlined here.

“Applying the model to such animals will help to identify previously unrecognised features of poor and good welfare by more precisely characterising scientifically validated negative and positive mental experiences, and their evaluation, as opposed to the commonly used imprecise and non-specific descriptors such as ‘suffering’ and ‘stress’.”

Using qualitative grading allows the monitoring of the welfare status of animals in different circumstances and at different times, providing scientifically informed and evidence-based guidance for decisions on whether to intervene or not.

They stress that it is important to recognise the limitations of the model.

“For some species, in some contexts, it may become evident that very few welfare indices can be assessed and interpreted, significantly hindering welfare assessments.

“However, this then highlights and identifies the knowledge gaps that need to be filled. As such, it provides a sound foundation for further research into the welfare of wild free-roaming animals.”

Harvey, A.M.; Beausoleil, N.J.; Ramp, D.; Mellor, D.J. A Ten-Stage Protocol for Assessing the Welfare of Individual Non-Captive Wild Animals: Free-Roaming Horses (Equus Ferus Caballus) as an Example. Animals 2020, 10, 148.

The study, published under a Creative Commons license, can be read here

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