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    How Animal Welfare Relates In A Sanctuary Environment

    A graphic with violet background has a road split into left and right. There is a sign on a wooden post with "Compassion" pointing right and "Exploitation" pointing left. Above "Animal Welfare" sits above the scene. A person with long purple hair in a yellow sweater smiles and point right.

    What We Mean When We Say Animal Welfare

    Often when you come across the term “animal welfare,” it is used by agricultural or other corporations or industries alongside terms such as “humane” or “cage-free.” Basically, in the public context, the term “animal welfare” is used to promote animal-based products, put forth as better and okay to use because the animals were treated well. We could go into a long monologue into the fallacies of these public-presenting faces of animal welfare marketing. But that isn’t what this resource is about.

    In this resource, when we use the term animal welfare, we are using the term at its simplest definition (see below), where the sole focus is using science-backed knowledge of the nonhuman animals we care for to provide the best care possible. The best possible care is the care that would result in good welfare for residents. This is what we mean when we use the term.

    When you see the term “animal welfare” or “animal welfare science,” you may associate it with systems of exploitation as they often use it as a marketing ploy to sell animal-based products or to otherwise justify the use of animals for human benefit. However, as we will cover in this resource, the concept of animal welfare is not inherently harmful, although the roots of the field of animal welfare stem from a focus on better caring for animals that humans use. If you are involved in sanctuary caregiver work, animal welfare is already a part of your daily care routine. Whenever you observe residents to see how they are behaving or acting, make changes to their living areas, perform health checks, or offer enrichment, you show concern for and try to improve their welfare. Unfortunately, a lot of welfare science may also attempt to improve aspects of care to reduce suffering but ultimately in order to increase production or performance. This is where our ethical stance sets us apart from how some industries and humans approach the concept. At its simplest, animal welfare is not an ethical concept (see definitions below). It is how humans choose to approach it that delves into ethics. If you work at an animal sanctuary, then you likely believe that nonhuman animals have the right to live a life free from human use and exploitation and have inherent worth as individuals. Your ethics inform how you perceive and care for residents. Animal welfare, free from exploitative approaches, is an important concept that has a place in compassionate sanctuary care.

    While many studies demonstrate how animal welfare science is human-centric, there also exists animal-centered research, in which the primary goal is to consider the needs of the nonhuman animals involved and others like them that will benefit from the research. We have already used the word “welfare” above, and you likely have a good idea of what it means. In this resource, we will first define animal welfare and animal welfare science. We will then look at some examples of studies that explore the spectrum of research and discuss how animal welfare applies in a sanctuary context.

    What Is Animal Welfare?

    The definition of animal welfare varies depending on who you ask. At its core, animal welfare generally relates specifically to nonhuman animals in human-managed situations, though there is growing interest in the welfare of wild animals. However, even in the case of free-roaming wildlife, it often comes from how humans have or are affecting the wild populations through their behavior and practices. Animal welfare scientists and ethicists have had long discussions (and disagreements) on the definition of animal welfare.

    Here are a few examples of definitions of animal welfare:

     “Welfare defines the state of an animal as regards its[they] attempts to cope with its environment.” – Fraser and Broom

     “The physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it [they] lives and dies.” – OIE Terrestrial Code

    Animal welfare is defined by Marian Dawkins (scientist) through 2 questions: “Is the animal healthy?” “Do they have what they want?

    Now that we have defined animal welfare, let’s look a little deeper into what that entails. It is now (and has been for some time) generally agreed upon by scientists that three categories must be considered when assessing the welfare of animals:

    • Health and Functioning
    • Natural Behaviors
    • Affective States

    Before we look at some research examples of animal welfare science and how they vary significantly in terms of purpose and method, let’s look at a modern facet of animal welfare: The Five Freedoms.

    A Note On The Global History Of Animal Welfare
    While this resource is intended to introduce the concept of animal welfare in the context of sanctuary environments, a brief mention of The Five Freedoms is mentioned below. This is due to the fact that it set the stage for the modern field of animal welfare science. However, because the Five Freedoms was initially focused in the UK, we wish to highlight that belief systems and legislation surrounding animal welfare are not merely a western concept. Many cultures have a history of attention to the care and protection of animals, some still from a place of exploitation and others from a place of animal rights. While the Five Freedoms is part of many scientific papers about animal welfare science, the concept of animal welfare is ancient and spans continents and cultures.

    The Five Freedoms

    While we won’t delve deeply into the complex history of animal welfare, the Five Freedoms is an important element to understanding the modern concept of animal welfare. In the 1960s, the Farm Animal Welfare Council refined concepts of animal welfare into The Five Freedoms. This stemmed from a report that explored issues with intensive farming that had become the norm. Since 1965, when the report (The Brambell Report) emerged, it has become a foundation of animal welfare policies in animal shelters, zoos, sanctuaries, and animal performance and work industries. It is even used in some conservation breeding programs. Let’s take a look at these freedoms:

    • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
    • Freedom from Discomfort
    • Freedom from Pain, Injury, or Disease
    • Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
    • Freedom from Fear and Distress
    Critiques Of The Five Freedoms

    The Five Freedoms has been critiqued due to its focus on freedom “from” something negative. Some have posited that focusing on “freedom to as opposed to freedom from” would be better and note that positive affective states should be promoted when it comes to ensuring good animal welfare. This is a concept most sanctuaries would agree with.

    What Is Animal Welfare Science?

    Animal Welfare Science is the study of the welfare of animals in human-controlled environments, using a variety of measures, including behavioral, physiological, and management-based measures, to learn about and improve the welfare of animals. Animal welfare assessments are the topic of many research papers and studies. An animal welfare assessment is a system that uses various welfare measures to detect an animal’s physical health, pain status, and mental and emotional state.

    Critiques Of Animal Welfare Science

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    From an animal rights perspective, the most extensive critique of animal welfare science is that it is generally used through a human-centric lens, such as: “How can this ultimately benefit humans?” Or, “How can we exploit animals better?”

    Studies, such as, 

    “Breeding for better welfare: genetic goals for broiler chickens and their parents,”

    “Dairy cows welfare quality in tie-stall housing system with or without access to exercise,”

    Equine welfare issues within the showing and racing industries,” and

    Effects of visitor numbers on captive European red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) and impacts on visitor experience

    demonstrate both the use of animal welfare science in questioning the practices of humans and improving exploitative systems, but not condemning the oppressive system. Researchers may question the “suitability” of specific practices, suggesting further research into alternatives. However, at its foundation, animal welfare isn’t about abolishing exploitative systems altogether. Instead, it mainly focuses on changing the system to improve the animals’ welfare, often focusing on economic gains, successful breeding, human health, and so on. In short, it is generally used to perpetuate the use of animals.

    Although much research is human-centric, a number of researchers question animal use in certain contexts or design their research to be animal-centric. There are even animal welfare scientists that are also animal rights activists, though fewer exist.

    A Move To More Animal-Centered Science

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    Above, we have looked at examples of human-centric animal welfare research. However, not all studies are inherently exploitative. In some studies, we can see research that centers the animal and animals in general. Animals aren’t bred or kept for research purposes or subject to invasive procedures. A focus on observing animals in non-exploitative environments and using new non-invasive techniques to gather physiological data are more and more common. Studies are taking place that “ask” the animals their preferences, promote positive experiences, or minimize negative experiences. Many studies have taken place at animal shelters, and even at animal sanctuaries, with the focus being both on the welfare of each individual involved in the study and on other animals that will benefit without harming anyone. In the methods sections of some studies, researchers discuss how the only animals involved are those who showed interest in being in the area, interacting with humans involved, or taking an individual out of the study because they showed signs of stress.

    These are studies of animal welfare that, while not always necessarily pushing to abolish the systems that placed these individuals in their current situations (though some do), are more animal-centric (considering the needs of the animal more substantially) than human-centric.

    Rescued Goats At A Sanctuary Display Positive Mood After Former Neglect

    “…Therefore, our results show that after several years of good care, rescued goats displayed optimistic moods (females) or similar moods as controls (males). This suggests that goats probably recover from neglect and that sex differences in mood potentially exist.”

    Welfare Assessment In “Pet” Rabbits

    “One million pet rabbits are kept in The Netherlands, but there are no data available on their behaviour and welfare. This study seeks to assess the welfare of pet rabbits in Dutch households and is a first step in the development of a welfare assessment system. In an internet survey, housing systems, general up-keep and behaviour of pet rabbits were reported by their owners.”

    Implementation Of Animal Welfare In Tiger Sanctuary, Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary, North Sumatra, Indonesia

    “This study aimed to examine the aspects of welfare management and assess the level of welfare of the tigers kept in the sanctuary at the Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary (BNWS) in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The study was carried out from March to April 2019, while data collection was carried out by literature studies, field observation on implementation of five animal welfare parameters, and self-assessment by the manager of the sanctuary.”

    The Challenges For A Closed-To-The-Public Animal Sanctuary: Prioritizing Animal Welfare While engaging in educational community outreach

    “Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is a small primate sanctuary in Cle Elum, Washington, and is presently home to seven chimpanzees who were retired from biomedical research. I used this sanctuary as a case study to find out how a closed-to-the-public sanctuary can engage in educational outreach without compromising the welfare of the residents. I employed a combination of semi-structured interviews with sanctuary personnel, ethnographic participant observation as a volunteer caregiver, and an online survey offered to the local community to help me understand the goals and limitations of sanctuaries. I also designed and conducted two educational programs for local area schools as beta tests for educational outreach program design.”

    Exploring Inter-Observer Reliability And Feasibility In Animal Welfare Measures At A Large Equine Rescue Facility

    “This paper seeks to identify reliable and feasible measures of animal welfare for a large horse rescue facility. A literature search was performed to identify previously validated equine welfare measures that were relevant in this population. The selected resource- and animal-based measures (17 total questions) were then incorporated into a new smartphone app for easier field assessment. Video footage was recorded of ten rescue horses held at a large equine rescue facility in southern Texas, USA. These horses were selected to represent a range of ages, sex, breed, and welfare state. Five trained employees (‘assessors’) at the same facility then performed the welfare assessment of each horse (via video) using the smartphone app. Assessors then filled out a 57-question survey on the ease of assessment, relevance, and ability of each welfare measure to capture the welfare states of horses at the rescue facility. The 17 main welfare measures were broken down into 29 measures for further analysis.”

    In our science for sanctuaries series, we talk about how caregivers can use existing animal welfare science and even design compassionate sanctuary studies* that can improve the lives of individual residents when done carefully and correctly.

    *Compassionate Science Only 
    We have mentioned it before, but this can’t be overstated: We at The Open Sanctuary Project fundamentally disavow animal experimentation and any “use” of animals for human purposes. No resident should ever be forced into a situation that might cause them harm for the sake of knowledge. Ensuring residents are not emotionally, mentally, or physically discomforted or harmed is paramount in compassionate science. Examples of compassionate science at sanctuaries may look like:

    – Giving residents choices to learn their preferences. For example, do Frankie, Loretta, and Danu seem to prefer the scent of peppermint over the scent of cinnamon or sage? Do you observe any changes in behavior when they are exposed to their scent of choice? Does their heart rate or respiratory rate change?

    – Making environmental changes and recording their behavior or using other non-invasive measurements. For example, does Allie exhibit more exploratory behavior and increased activity when we place scratching posts further out in their outdoor space over placement closer to their indoor living space? Or does Sinda walk into the trailer more quickly when there is a light in there?

    The best way to practice compassionate science in many situations is to let the residents choose. If they indicate they don’t like an essential oil diffuser, take it away or ensure they have the choice to walk away from it. Ideally, you are just offering them the option to participate in an activity or interact with something if they find it neutral or positive. Giving the choice to walk away is not always possible during things like dental exams or medical treatments. During those times, you can assess whether the addition of something like a lavender-scented diffuser has the potential to help and make observations and check heart rate (collect data) if it doesn’t cause additional stress to the resident.

    Remember, the goal of sanctuary science is to better the life of the individual! Purposefully putting residents in potentially harmful situations, whether they be emotionally, mentally, or physically harmful, is unacceptable. Let’s make science what it should be – compassionate and non-exploitative!

    Animal Welfare In Sanctuary Settings

    By now, you can see how animal welfare can be utilized in a non-exploitative sanctuary environment. The concept of animal welfare in and of itself is not in direct opposition to a sanctuary or animal rights perspective. There are many ways in which animal welfare science can and is used to improve the lives of animals without the goal of ultimately benefiting humans.

    A cartoon profile of a human head wears a calm expression. A purple heart can be seen inside their head with three white gears within it.

    In the context of sanctuaries, animal welfare is about centering the needs of residents and considering and learning what elements can improve their physical, emotional, and mental health. We want our residents to thrive, not just survive. Ensuring residents thrive requires attention to their needs and finding ways to ensure these needs are met while providing opportunities for positive experiences. Animal welfare assessments could be particularly useful in a sanctuary setting, allowing caregivers to observe, monitor, and collect information on the welfare of individual residents.

    Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Welfare
    It’s essential to understand that good intentions don’t automatically mean good welfare. As nonhuman animal advocates and caregivers, we know our hearts are in the right place. The goal is to build on those intentions, providing residents with quality care. Simply calling a setting a sanctuary has no actual impact on an individual’s well-being. Healthcare, staff training, enrichment, appropriate living spaces, healthy diets, and more are all part of ensuring residents live happy, healthy lives.

    We hope you have found this resource helpful and see how animal welfare as a concept isn’t in itself a justification for using animals for human benefit, but can be used as an essential aspect of sanctuary care. As more examples of animal-centric welfare science are published, we hope for an increase in compassionate thinking reflected in the research. We look forward to updating this and other resources with additional animal-centric sources in the future!


    Five Freedoms | ASPCA

    Methods of Assessment Of The Welfare Of Shelter Cats: A Review | Animals

    The Five Freedoms | Association Of Shelter Veterinarians (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving Beyond The “Five Freedoms” Towards “A Life Worth Living” | Animals (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Farm Animal Welfare in Great Britain: Past, Present And Future | Farm Animal Welfare Council (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Animal Welfare | World Organization For Animal Health (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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