Research Article: Development of a behavioural welfare assessment tool for routine use with captive elephants

Date Published: February 6, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Lisa Yon, Ellen Williams, Naomi D. Harvey, Lucy Asher, Elissa Z. Cameron.


There has been much concern in recent years about the welfare of elephants in zoos across North America and Europe. While some previous studies have assessed captive elephant welfare at a particular point in time, there has been little work to develop methods which could be used for regular, routine welfare assessment. Such assessment is important in order to track changes in welfare over time. A welfare assessment tool should be rapid, reliable, and simple to complete, without requiring specialist training and facilities; welfare assessments based on behavioural observations are well suited to this purpose. This report describes the development of a new elephant behavioural welfare assessment tool designed for routine use by elephant keepers. Tool development involved: (i) identification of behavioural indicators of welfare from the literature and from focus groups with relevant stakeholders; (ii) development of a prototype tool; (iii) testing of the tool at five UK zoological institutions, involving 29 elephants (representing 46% of the total UK captive elephant population of 63 animals); (iv) assessment of feasibility and reliability of aspects of the prototype tool; (v) assessment of the validity of each element of the tool to reflect the relevant behaviour by comparing detailed behavioural observations with data from the prototype tool; (vi) assessment of known-groups criterion validity by comparing prototype tool scores in individuals with demographics associated with better or worse welfare; (vii) development of a finalised tool which incorporated all elements of the tool which met the criteria set for validity and reliability. Elements of the tool requiring further consideration are discussed, as are considerations for appropriate application and interpretation of scores. This novel behavioural welfare assessment tool can be used by elephant-holding facilities for routine behavioural welfare monitoring, which can inform adjustments to individual welfare plans for each elephant in their collection, to help facilities further assess and improve captive elephant welfare. This study provides an example of how an evidence-based behavioural welfare assessment tool for use by animal caretakers can be developed within the constraints of zoo-based research, which could be applied to a range of captive species.

Partial Text

Modern welfare assessment has placed much focus on providing animal carers or inspectors with the tools to be able to routinely assess welfare in situ (e.g. on farm, in the laboratory, in the field, in a rescue shelter and in zoos [1–4]). Routine assessment of welfare may be of particular importance for captive elephants. Zoo elephant welfare across North America and Europe has been criticised [5–9] and in the UK, specific concerns were raised by a report on the welfare of elephants in UK zoos [10]. A review of this report by the government advisory committee, the Zoos Forum [11], suggested that evidence of welfare improvements were needed in order for zoos to continue keeping elephants in captivity. Previous studies have focussed on judging the current welfare state of elephants [5, 10], but few studies have developed methods for routine assessment of elephant welfare. Yet, objective and regular assessment of elephant welfare is needed to be able to monitor and provide evidence of any improvements, as was mandated by the Zoos Forum and the House of Lords [11, 12].

This project involved the development of a novel, evidence-based, behavioural welfare assessment tool for use in evaluating the welfare of captive elephants. The behavioural welfare assessment tool developed in this project was designed to address a specific need in the elephant-holding zoo community in the UK: the need for a validated (as far as possible in the time available and constraints of research in a zoo environment), relatively rapid, easy-to-use tool that could be regularly used by elephant keepers to make behavioural assessments of welfare. The results of the study suggest that this aim was successfully met, as many behavioural indicators of welfare, previously validated as such from other studies, could be reliably scored using the tool designed. Furthermore, many of the indicators measured using the tool were representative of that behaviour measured using a gold standard ethological method of scoring behaviour every 3–5 minutes for 72 hours. A number of behavioural indicators of welfare assessed during the day using the tool were closely matched to the ethological behaviour scoring; these included: feeding, wallowing, stereotypy and play behaviour. At night, agonistic behaviour and lying rest, particularly when the lying rest occurred near others, were both measured accurately using the tool, as these measures also closely matched the results from the ethological behaviour scoring. An excel spreadsheet with pre-designed formulae, and drop down boxes, has been designed and distributed to the zoos for ease of data entry and collation and interpretation of results. This will allow zoos to assess the impact of changes in management and husbandry, to facilitate evidence-based management of their elephants, and is available from the authors on request.

This study describes the development of a new elephant behavioural welfare assessment tool designed to be relatively rapid, reliable and easy to use, to facilitate regular use by elephant keepers. To date the tool has been used by 11 UK and Irish facilities, and many of these facilities have used it multiple times to begin to track possible changes in welfare over time. The tool comprises three sections: (1) Qualitative behaviour assessment, rating demeanour of the elephant on 12 terms, scored after four sets of 1-minute observations across one day; (2) A series of questions answered after four sets of 5-minute daytime behaviour observations across three days; (3) Night-time observations, consisting of reviewing overnight footage, and recording behaviour using 30 minute scan sampling for one night.




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