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    Resident Behavior 101 For Animal Sanctuaries

    A caregiver pets a black cow who is laying down while another black cow licks the caregiver's hat.
    Understanding resident behavior can lead to a vast number of benefits! – Photo Credit: Full Circle Farm Sanctuary, Riki Higgins

    If you are reading this, you likely spend quite a lot of time with sanctuary residents, or wish to learn more about how to best care for them! This resource is intended to be valuable for anyone involved in the care of residents who wish to better understand their wants and needs, while keeping everyone safe and content. By the end of this resource, you will learn how observing and recording behavior in a sanctuary environment can help create a more robust care practice for each resident, and create a safer and more compassionate environment for both staff and residents.

    The Importance Of Observing Behavior

    Behavior provides a window into a resident’s world! With careful observation and study, behavior can tell us a great deal about what residents do when they are frightened, ill, or happy, as well as what they prefer, enjoy, and dislike. From a sanctuary perspective, observing residents’ behavior can greatly influence how you go about providing them basic care, medical treatment, create social groupings, design enrichment plans, and more!

    When observing behavior, care staff must consider two sides of the behavior coin: the species and the individual.

    Examples from The Sanctuary

    Did you know that chickens (non-large breed) will “work” for food, even when there is food readily available? This is a behavior called “contrafreeloading”. Why is it important? Having this behavioral knowledge allows you to make care decisions that can have a positive effect on chicken residents by adding ways for them to obtain food in an engaging, interactive way.
    “Helen the Chicken came to the sanctuary after her human passed away. Her human always fed her from a little bowl in her hand before setting down her food for the day. This is evident in her behavior. When care staff provide food and put out PVC food puzzles, the chickens excitedly approach these food sources. However, Helen just follows the care staff around and stares at them. As an individual, she prefers a moment with care staff feeding her a few bits before she goes to the feeder for more food, and seems disinterested in the PVC feeder.”

    History And Context

    As you can see from the example above, knowledge of both the species and the individual can play a big part in caring for residents. This is where history and context come into play in a sanctuary environment.

    Species History

    Learning about the history of your resident species can provide insight into how they navigate the world, and what is important to them as a species. Some good questions to ask may include:

    • Where do they originate from?
    • What are their feeding strategies?
    • How do they protect themselves from predators?
    • Where and when do they sleep?
    • How do they interact with others of their species?
    • How do they spend their time? (see Activity Budgets, below)

    Knowing the answer to these questions allows sanctuaries to provide proper living spaces, enrichment, food, and other resources, in addition to understanding their motivations and behaviors.

    Individual History

    Of course, residents are individuals, and just like us, they have their own personality, preferences, and past experiences- both positive and negative. These factors have collectively influenced their behavior and responses to certain stimuli.

    Examples From The Sanctuary

    As a species example, let’s look at donkeys: Wild donkeys (and the ancestors of sanctuary donkey residents) formed small herds. In addition, they were more likely to stand their ground when faced with a threat, and less likely to show signs of pain and illness to avoid being targeted by predators. Why is that important? This translates in a sanctuary environment to modern donkey residents who are less likely to show obvious signs of illness or pain than some other species. Therefore, donkey residents require close observation and attention if anything seems out of the ordinary. This species history also indicates the importance of donkeys being housed together.
    As we know, everyone is an individual. Donald is certainly his own donkey. He was rescued alone, and little is known of his history except that he was housed alone in a small paddock. He is best described by staff as “goofy”, and prefers the company of Lenny, the large goat next door. When other donkeys approach him, he backs away and moves to stand next to the fence he shares with Lenny. Considering what is known about his history, it may be appropriate to consider an alternate social housing option for Donald in spite of donkeys generally preferring the company of other donkeys as a species.

    At a sanctuary, you don’t always have the luxury of knowing what residents experienced before they came to you. When possible, gathering as much information about their individual history is critical, as it can help make sense of certain resident behaviors and provide the best possible care geared towards that individual.

    As you can see, learning about both the species and the individual is imperative to observing and making sense of their behaviors, allowing staff to make informed decisions on their care.

    The Importance Of Recording Behavior

    Now that we have covered the importance of observing behavior, we can talk about the importance of recording what you have observed! Recording behaviors as soon as a resident joins your sanctuary can greatly help to inform future interactions and determine needs that should be considered by caregivers. Recording behavior during their rescue and when they arrive at the sanctuary can give you a lot of information about how this individual copes with stressful situations. It is important to note these behaviors as it can also indicate areas where residents can be worked with to become accustomed to experiences that may be frightening for them, like loading into a trailer to go to the veterinarian’s office.

    The timing of recorded behavior is also important to consider when interpreting behavioral notes. For example, the behavior of an incoming pig resident may be very different from how they will behave once settled, which is why it’s very important to avoid mislabeling a resident outright as “stubborn”, “aggressive”, or “unfriendly”, and simply describe the behavior and what it is evidently in response to. Having their behavior on file can help paint a fuller picture of their experiences and emotional lives, which can help caregivers more fully provide for them.

    In a perfect world, each resident would have a daily behavior assessment recorded and placed in their file. However, this is likely not feasible at many sanctuaries. This being said, it is still vital that all residents be seen daily and that staff keep an eye out for any behaviors that may indicate physical or psychological problems, and those behaviors should be recorded. A full behavioral assessment can coincide with other care events such as, intake, health exams, grooming days, group deworming days. On these occasions, it is highly valuable to observe and record behavior before any resident is being worked with in order to get a baseline reading. Then, you should record how they behave during the event and at particular stages of the event.

    This information can and should be used to identify areas where staff can work with residents to make them feel safer, more comfortable, and hopefully, active participants in the event.

    “Describing Behavior” Versus “Assuming Emotions”

    While we will talk about ascribing emotional states to residents, it is important to first describe behavior. For example, let’s take a look at the following statement:

    “Joey was scared.”

    Rather than assuming an emotional state by writing “Joey was scared”, the next statement is an example of what could be described about Joey’s behavior, providing much more insight into the situation and allowing for solutions and better care planning.

    “Joey stood still while I put his halter on, accepted grooming with a brush, and even rubbed his head against me when I stopped. He walked calmly while I led him from the pasture, but stopped quite suddenly when he saw the trailer. I coaxed him forward and he took a few steps, but then started pulling back and breathing heavily and looking around. I led him away from the trailer and he moved quickly, almost pulling the lead from my hand. He stopped once the trailer was out of sight and started eating grass.”

    This description provides context, and allows the caregivers to develop a future plan for loading Joey into a trailer that protects both staff members and Joey, while also preventing future staff from or volunteers from writing Joey off as “stubborn” or “difficult”.

    Here is an alternative version that demonstrates why descriptions are important:

    “Joey stood while I put his halter on, accepted grooming with a brush, and even rubbed his head against me when I stopped. He walked calmly while I led him from the pasture, but stopped quite suddenly when he saw that his companion, Jewel, was out of sight. He started pulling back and looking around. I turned him around and he moved quickly back towards the fence where Jewel was eating and started eating grass.”

    In both examples above, Joey stopped when he was near the trailer. They both demonstrate that behavioral descriptions are much more helpful than simply saying “Joey was scared”. However, the detail in the first description doesn’t take into account both the species and the individual. Joey is a donkey. Donkeys are very social and develop strong bonds within their communities. Joey in particular is very bonded to Jewel and will make attempts to reunite with her when she is out of sight. This is something that could have potentially been dangerous for both staff and residents in this situation.

    This example indicates the importance of considering the species and individual history of the resident, Joey, in addition to the importance of using factual, detailed descriptions of the event- not just recording this incident in Joey’s file, but using specific details and giving context, building upon the caregivers’ existing knowledge.

    Animal Behavior

    For now, we will introduce the basics of of the following concepts from the scientific community, and will expound on them in a more advanced resource. Ethology is the study of animal behavior. We can use tools from this discipline to help create care plans that more fully capture the needs of residents in a sanctuary environment. There are two concepts in particular to take note of: Ethograms and Activity Budgets. These be especially useful when developing an enrichment plan and when considering the design of living spaces!


    An Ethogram is a list of behaviors, each with a specific definition. These behaviors may be categorized by type, such as Social, Food Related, Solitary Behaviors, and so on.
    Developing an Ethogram can help ensure that all observing staff are on exactly the same page as to what each behavior precisely means when recording it in resident populations. In other words, think of an Ethogram like a dictionary for establishing precise definitions for the special language of your sanctuary’s behavioral observation recording!

    Here’s what part of a sample Ethogram may look like:

    Type Of BehaviorBehaviorDescription Of Behavior
    SolitaryGroom selfResident engages in washing or smoothing their own fur or hair using their mouth or forelimbs
     SleepResident assumes species-specific position for sleep, stays in one place, and is not alert to environmental changes
     RestResident stays in one place, but may be roused easily by environmental changes
     LocomoteResident moves from place to place
    Food RelatedEatResident consumes food they find in their environment
     Look For FoodResident searches the environment for food items
     DrinkResident consumes water or other liquids found in their environment
    SocialGroom OthersResident engages in washing or smoothing the fur or hair of another resident in their environment
     PlayResident engages in interactions with others that may involve locomotion, climbing, manipulating objects or other activities that show a relationship between two or more interacting residents
    ConfrontationalConfrontResident engages in physical conflict with another resident in their environment
     Steal FoodResident approaches another resident that has located food in the environment, and either by physical force or distraction, removed that food item from the vicinity of the other resident
    A short sample of an Ethogram that a sanctuary might create.

    You observe that multiple goat residents spend 20 percent of their time engaging in confrontational behaviors, and even more time laying down. You would like to decrease their confrontational behaviors and increase their time spent engaging with their environment. You then consider species-specific behaviors: Goats in natural habitats spend much of their time exploring their environment and foraging. You notice that their area is fairly bare of topographical interest and the pasture is pretty bare as well. You consider their care routine and feeding schedule of placing two piles of hay in close proximity to each other. You hypothesize that adding tree stumps and old large spools, spread throughout the living space, in addition to adding additional opportunities to browse throughout their living space, will increase the desired behaviors and decrease the confrontational behaviors.

    The above example is a very simplified version of the process, as there are several scientific ways to observe behavior, depending on the situation. This will be covered in our next behavioral resource. For now, let’s move on to another area of science sanctuaries can benefit from:

    Qualitative Behavior Assessment

    Take The Folllowing With A Grain Of Salt Or Two

    This is a simplified explanation of QBA! The actual process is more complicated. However, with some thoughtfulness, a QBA can be effectively simplified to work within a sanctuary environment!

    I know, I know, we just said describe, don’t ascribe. And this may be venturing into Behavior 102! However, there is a place for assessing behavior in a more qualitative way, although it works best if everyone has been trained the same way. After recording such things as a resident’s behavior descriptions, health, diet, and living situation, there is room for what is called Qualitative Behavior Assessment or QBA, for short.

    QBA was developed with the goal of including a non-human animal’s perspective in welfare assessments, and treating them as sentient and complex beings. QBAs work to consider animals as a “behaver”, or subject, and not just simply focusing on the behavior itself. The goal of a QBA is to add another layer to our assessment of the individual. This technique is particularly useful when trying to get a full assessment of residents, and when developing care plans best suited to their needs. It is also another valuable tool to help keep both residents and staff safe.

    Let’s say that a caregiver describes an individual’s behavior as follows:

    “Joey stopped when he saw the trailer and pulled back until being led away.”

    Adding QBA can take this description a step further and ask the caregiver to then interpret the expression of that behavior further:

    “While attempting to load Joey into the trailer, he pulled back.” How did Joey pull back? He was tense and fearful.

    Of course, this means the assessor must be familiar with species-specific behaviors, in addition to indicators of stress, pleasure, and neutral emotional spaces in order for a QBA to be effective. A new member of staff may not have the benefit of the same training or experiences with the species (and definitely not with the individual) which may lead to a misuse of labels such as “stubborn” or “difficult” in relation to Joey, instead of understanding his fear and anxiety in context. A mislabeling of emotions could potentially result in care staff implementing inadequate or unintentionally harmful responses to his behavior, such as forcing Joey to load out of the assumption that he is being “stubborn”, instead of trying a gentler approach as one would when recognizing his fear.

    QBA is an expression of the idea that animals are whole, sentient individuals, and while we should certainly make ample use quantitative measures of well-being (such as access to clean water, limping, access to social groupings, and so on), we should also make use of qualitative measures if it can be done skillfully.

    Qualitative Behavior Assessment does “not evaluate at all what an animal does, but how it [sic] does what it does.” (Wemelsfelder et al., 2000)

    As an example to the above:

    Zoe the goat is limping, but they have a genetic defect that causes the limp. Although they are limping, they appear curious and engaged with their environment and companions. Whereas, Gina is limping and appears depressed and uncomfortable. This tells a very different story!

    Many caregivers have been performing QBAs without putting a name to the practice for a long time, because much of it is common sense. However, combining a proper QBA with quantitative measures makes it much more robust- because everyone can misread and make mistakes sometimes- while still approaching it from a compassionate mindset.

    There are two ways to approach QBA: Fixed Lists and Free-Choice Profiling.

    Fixed List

    As you may surmise from the name,  Fixed Lists in QBA are a set of predetermined emotional state descriptors that assessors might choose from while assessing the state of the resident. The key thing about Fixed Lists is they are developed and agreed upon ahead of time by those familiar with the species. A Fixed List for chicken residents may vary a bit from a Fixed List for horse residents, though this is not absolutely the case in every scenario.

    Adding space for descriptions of behavior as well as QBA on health and intake exam documentation can give current and future staff a well-rounded picture of the individual resident and allow for better care decisions. Here is an example of a fixed list of indicators:

    • Happy
    • Calm
    • Playful
    • Content
    • Curious
    • Engaged
    • Friendly
    • Relaxed
    • Sociable
    • Anxious
    • Tense
    • Depressed
    • Nervous
    • Fearful

    These and other terms have been studied for their reliability in assessing a number of species. Some terms are less effective than others, depending on the species.

    Free-Choice Profiling

    On the other hand, Free-Choice Profiling allows the assessor to use their own descriptive terms when assessing an animal. This is more complicated than it sounds: It requires multiple people to generate terms beforehand and assess if those terms are truly effective. When utilizing Free-Choice Profiling and doing any type of behavior assessment, it is important that the assessors have been trained and are familiar with the species they are assessing. At this time, it may not be the most appropriate assessment to implement at a sanctuary.

    However, it is okay to explain why you feel a resident is feeling a certain way, based on behavioral descriptions, it just isn’t a scientifically rigorous assessment like proper Free-Choice Profiling.

    Trauma-Informed Behavioral Assessment

    Trauma-Informed Care is something usually associated with human animals. However, as many of you know, nonhuman animals also experience trauma and develop behaviors as a result. As their caregivers, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that a number of residents may have experienced trauma(s) that may influence how they behave.

    Sanctuary Example (Content Warning: Animal Cruelty)

    Gregory was a goose rescued and brought into a sanctuary. He had been the victim of live plucking, and his behaviors reflected his experiences. While geese can be confrontational and protective of their own, Gregory would rush and bite any caregivers that attempted to enter his living space, and would step in between his companion Gloria and any humans he saw. Here we see natural species behavior potentially exacerbated by his individual history with a traumatic event. Keeping this in mind allows caregivers to truly consider the individual and the importance of approaching every resident with mindfulness of how their background may influence present day behavior.

    (End Content Warning)


    It is important to note that not all “negative” behavior is necessarily the result of trauma, but keeping the possibility in mind can help you more fully care for individual residents and refrain from writing them off as “unfriendly” or “difficult”.

    Benefits Of Behavioral Observations And Records

    This is a lot to cover in a 101 resource, but we’d like to leave you with a list of all the benefits that including behavioral observations and records in your care sheets can have for the overall care of sanctuary residents. Observing and recording behavior can create a wonderful environment where everyone is an individual and has care plans developed with them specifically in mind!

    • It can help ensure appropriate adoption placement
    • It can assist with creating appropriate living arrangements
    • It can help everyone be more aware of a resident’s likely reactions under stressful conditions
    • It can help in the development of individualized care plans, including trauma-informed care plans
    • Assessing behavior over time can assist in identifying causes of discomfort with new environmental changes
    • It can be highly valuable for the early identification of health issues
    • It can help provide a strong continuity of care during staff changes
    • It helps keep both staff and residents safe
    • It can help identify stressors which can hopefully be managed

    Whew! We know this is a lot to take in, which is why we are breaking this up into 2 resources: this resource, and Applied Resident Behavior Techniques For Animal Sanctuaries. We hope this resource will help you ensure your residents are healthy and happy!


    Qualitative Behaviour Assessment | University Of Warwick

    Sample Ethogram | Tree Of Life Web Project 

    What’s An Activity Budget? | NRICH

    Comparison Of Free Choice Profiling And Fixed Terms For Qualitative Behaviour Assessment In Dairy Cattle | University Of Natural Resources And Life Sciences, Thesis – Beate Müllner (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?

    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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