What is Animal Welfare?

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Lions enjoy rolling in different scents.

There are times when visitors to zoological institutions express concern over the health, care, or welfare of animals within the collection. But what exactly is animal welfare? How do we know that we are taking the best possible care of animals within zoos and aquariums?

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines animal welfare as “an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional states over a period of time, and is measured on a continuum from good to poor.” When describing an animal’s physical state, we are looking for things such as health, safety, and comfort. At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, not only do we want to make sure animals do not have any chronic health issues, but we want to make sure each and every animal is thriving within its environment and is provided with a natural, well-balanced diet.

In terms of mental states, we want to make sure animals have the ability to develop and express species-appropriate behaviors, live in species-typical social groups, and have some choice and control within their environment. Animals have behavioral needs, or behaviors that they are motivated to perform. If you have read some of my other blog posts about animal enrichment, you would know about some of the research we are conducting to examine animal preferences to ensure we are meeting the needs, both physical and psychological, of our animals. In addition, providing some choice or control within an animal’s environment is what makes their behavior meaningful, and every day our dedicated animal care staff provides environmental enrichment for the animals to help meet these goals. We are simply trying to put a scientific framework around what our animal care staff does so well to ensure we are meeting the needs of the animals.

Dirt is a useful tool for an elephant.

When we talk about emotional states, we want animals to have the ability to experience positive emotions such as surprise or excitement and not suffer from negative emotions like fear or anxiety. In order to make certain animals have the ability to experience some of these positive emotions, we need to continually strive to make their lives less predictable. Often times, people think a zoological exhibit is too small for an animal, but what can be equally, if not more, important than the size of an exhibit is the complexity of an exhibit. How often do things change? Do the animals encounter new sights, sounds, and smells? Do they experience new things? This is what is going to decrease predictability in their environment and ultimately increase the likelihood of experiencing positive emotions.

So what is animal welfare? It is everything about an animal: the way it is cared for, the natural and individual history of the individual, and using science to ensure that every individual animal is thriving. In the end, research is what is necessary to guarantee we are providing the highest levels of welfare for the animals under our care. Removing subjective thoughts or opinions from decision making and using scientific evidence helps ensure high levels of welfare. I consider myself very fortunate to work with an amazing group of animal care and veterinary professionals who are committed to taking an evidence-based approach to the welfare of the animals at both the Zoo and Safari Park. This ensures that current and future generations of visitors have the ability to learn about the amazing animals at our facilities while watching them engage in a remarkable array of species-appropriate behaviors.

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous posts, Big Cat Preferences, Part 3.