animal welfare: what is it?

Animal welfare… we write about it a lot on the CZS Insights blog and there is an entire department at Brookfield Zoo named for it. But what is it and how do we study it?

What is Animal Welfare?

Lately, we have all been thinking more about family, friends, and our own physical and mental health. That is exactly what the CZS animal welfare researchers are studying with the animals at the zoo. Animal welfare is defined as an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional states over a period of time (AZA, 2020). The goal of animal welfare research is to determine if an animal or group of animals (for example an ant colony or school of fish) is thriving within their environment.

To achieve good welfare in a zoo or aquarium environment an animal must be provided with the appropriate food, water, shelter, and medical care along with environmental enrichment that improves the habitat beyond basic behavioral and cognitive needs. For example, animals can be provided with complex environmental enrichment that challenges their ability to learn and solve new problems. Overall, an animal with good welfare will have appropriate medical care and nutrition, safe shelter from the elements, and enriching and stimulating environment, the ability to express species-appropriate behaviors, and will not suffer unnecessary fear and distress.

How Do We Know If An Animal Has Good Welfare?

The way an animal is responding to its environment can be measured by looking at both its behavior and physiology. Many behavioral responses to the environment can be easy to spot. For example, a tiger may spend time chasing an enrichment item that looks or acts like prey. This chasing behavior results in the tiger engaging in species-appropriate behavior and more physical activity. Researchers and animal care specialists can keep track of behaviors associated with positive and negative welfare over time to monitor an animal’s welfare.

The physiological responses to the environment cannot be evaluated by the casual observer but can be examined through changes in biological responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenal hormones. When the tiger is chasing the enrichment item, the tiger will experience a temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure. They will anticipate the reward of capturing the prey resulting in an increase in cortisol. Researchers can collect repeated biological samples from an individual to look at their responses to many events over time. An animal with good welfare will have an appropriate hormonal response to a stressful (positive or negative) event.

By collecting information about the behavioral and physiological responses of an animal to its environment, we can get a picture of the animal’s mental and physical health.

The Standard

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is the primary accrediting body for zoos and aquariums in the United States. Zoos and aquariums that are accredited meet or exceed the established standards and best practices for care and management of the animals in their care. While researching and monitoring animal welfare has been practiced in zoos for quite some time, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums formally added a new standard that specifically addresses animal welfare to their accreditation process in 2018. The standard was designed to ensure all accredited zoos and aquariums have designed a strategic framework to assess and evaluate animal welfare. The Chicago Zoological Society exceeded the accreditation requirements with the establishment of the Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare a decade before the new standard and has always been a leader in cutting-edge animal welfare science.

Protecting the welfare of the animals in their care is the ethical responsibility of all zoos and aquariums. By continually measuring an animal’s understanding of their experience (their welfare) in a structured way, we can learn how to continually improve their environments and make the most well-informed care and management decisions.

Published December 15, 2020