In their shoes… fins, paws, feet...

We are all thinking about animal care, including how we interact with them and ways we can impact their wellbeing ranging from negatively to positively, i.e., the quality of care. To think about how we do what we do is impacting them, or likely, or possibly impacting them. 

One of the questions, or rather perhaps, exercises, I like to think about and engage in is: what it would be like to be in their position? Where they live, with whom, what opportunities and affordances they have, etc. This is a difficult thing to do and not without interpretational hurdles and problems, I know, I already hear the word anthropomorphism ringing in my ears.

I bet anyone working with animals would love to be able to be that animal or species or individual for 1 day (or longer)! To experience e.g., what the world is like for them, how do they experience varies things in their lives, how and what they think about, how do they feel and experience their world emotionally? Can we just be Dr Doolittle, please? We have so many questions about animals and how wonderful would it be to be able to ask, or to experience what it would be like in their shoes… fins, paws, feet...

There are many ways to try and gauge animal wellbeing, by for example observing how animals use their environment, who they interact with and how they do this, doing systematic preference testing, quantitative (where, how often, how long), and qualitative behavioural assessment (how, emotional expressive qualities of behaviour, a whole animal approach), there are many different ways to gain insights and do animal welfare assessments.

Considering that we cannot be a white rhino, cotton-top marmoset or iguana for a day we can use other methods to gain insights, to gauge their experiences. When thinking of animals under human care and how we can try to optimize and promote positive welfare for the animals, we try to imagine what a certain situation is like, and so many questions come to mind. One of the ways that can help us think about other animals, and consider the effects is Critical Anthropomorphism, first described by Professor Gordon Burghardt in 1985, where he introduces:

  • Anthropomorphism – Attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities (grievous sin)
  • Anthropomorphism by Omission – Unwittingly neglecting the animal’s perspective and Umwelt (also a grievous sin)
  • Critical Anthropomorphism – Using our stance as human beings to propose the occurrence of testable cognitive, emotional, and behavioural processes in other species informed by rigorous incorporation of empirical knowledge and research findings on physiology, sensory and neural processes, ecology, behaviour, sociality, and development (Essential Virtue)

"Judging other species using markers such as screams, smiles, or even speed of responding can be uncritically anthropomorphic and a hallmark of anthropocentrism!”

We of course gather all the information we can find to understand the biology, ecology, consider aspects of evolutionary significance, the background knowledge of a species. We also want to consider aspects of learning and training, differences between their wild and captive life, and identify possible indicators of wellbeing on a scale from poor to good (optimal).

There are many aspects in caring for animals that we can look at and see what they might be experiencing, and how we can refine/improve. For example, it is likely you know an animal who is constantly looking around and looking out. This could be in relation to a caregiver, where they are, when and what they are doing, as well as perhaps also looking for or at visitors.

Another animal might be sitting a lot of time in a tunnel that acts as a shuttle between in- and outdoor areas, or right in the door opening. He or she is monitoring the environment for what is happening, or sits high up overlooking, all can be a good thing as information seeking, understanding, and integration is an important part of an animal’s life. We know that exploring, gathering information, working for something, can potentially be intrinsically motivating. It also makes me think about the purpose and flow, such important drivers in human behaviour, but that is for another time.

However, if the frequency and intensity of all this looking around, searching and monitoring is very high or manifested in undesired behaviours, this can result in suboptimal wellbeing for an animal. Of course, a certain amount of vigilance is necessary and important and is part of the natural behaviour repertoire. However, we should evaluate and be attentive if an animal has high levels of vigilance behaviour which can indicate anxiety and uncertainty, feelings of unsafety. High vigilance also takes away from the time an animal could be interacting with other animals, reducing quality and quantity of rest and sleep, and or the reduction of other activities in the habitat. High vigilance is also a state of constant attention which is very exhausting, physical and mentally.

These high vigilance related behaviours are often related to high unpredictability, but also due to caregivers who were/are signalling changes they were/are making - like shutting doors when the animals did/do not expect it or want it, what has previously been learned, and a lack of cues in general. Having specific cues can help reduce uncertainty and signal what is going to happen, when, where and who, it signals good and aversive events so animals can anticipate what is coming rather than having to guess and figure it out. Have clear communication around what might be or is perceived as aversive, can help increase certainty, even if what is coming is not necessarily positive. Unpredictability without choices and control is not a favourable position to be in.

For example, we could decide to wear an orange suit only when we have to capture animals for medical checks. The orange suit will let the animals know what we are doing, and not wearing it will signal that no capturing will take place, which often reduces the stress related to these procedures. When the orange suit is worn, it is clear, capturing will take place.

We could something similar to reduce the high vigilance and monitoring behaviour by announcing a door will close, by for example saying 'door' ahead of time, and leaving time for an animal to make a decision and act on them. The animal then has the time to decide and move wherever he or she would like to be, rather than being surprised and caught somewhere undesired. This can be helpful for example when you are needing to capture an animal for a routine health check.

If it is a frequent event, it is preferable to teach animals to voluntarily participate in their health care therefore eliminating the need to capture or reduce it significantly.

A balance should be struck between predictability and unpredictability, with a favourable balance for the animals. More about predictability in another blog. 

As a thought experiment, let's go to go back to the animal which spends all this time observing.

Imagine you would be in your home but there are these people walking and working around you, closing and opening doors without your consent or at unpredictable times. They are allowing and removing your access to your food, other animals, areas and or activities, even a view but you do not have control nor choice over when and how this happens.

Where do you imagine yourself to be if someone could suddenly close a door to the kitchen or your bedroom if this is where you want to be?

You probably would want to be close to the kitchen door so you can quickly go through it if it looks they might close off your access to the fridge when you are hungry.

Or you might find yourself staying in the bedroom longer so you do not have to give up your bed, which you like, hence quickly taking breakfast back into bed.

Where shall you be positioned to survey when these people are controlling your access to the bed, the kitchen or spending time in the larger living room with games, TV, a larger and comfier place to lounge and or socialise, or even to get to the garden?

You start to feel annoyed I can imagine, and indeed, why should you have to choose, why should I have to be so concerned with these matters all the time? Why can’t the doors be open and you can choose where you want to be, when and with who.

Now go back to the animals we care for, we all know some animals who are concerned with being shut in or out. Animals who are identified as “difficult” like e.g., when shifting, moving into and through tunnels.

How we should look at this I think is that the animal(s) convey to us that they do not like the way we interact with them, how we have set up the environment, the types of options they have, etc. We should use this as information to improve what we do, with the focus on how. It is not only the end result we should keep in mind, but the way of getting there, the way of achieving this to be as or even, most important. See it as a dynamic approach always open to refinement. 

There is immense power in asking questions, to go through exercises of wonder and enquiry. Another important exercise it to ask questions and understand what their life is like around the clock, across time. What seems to fit with our working style and hours is often not a good fit for many of the species we care for in captivity, from tigers, anteaters, bats to rats, fish or birds. Would a “24-hour zoo” that operates to accommodate and facilitates and promote optimal wellbeing not be fantastic? A 24/7 across lifespan approach, including those animals who are active when we are asleep, a zoo where animals can choose day and night as their exhibits are semi-automatic through modern technology.

If we put ourselves in their fins, paws, feet... we have to ask ourselves honestly what the real choices and control are the animals can exert over their environment, including their social life and more. How many real choices do the animals have when we control where, when, how, who and what in their environment? It is time to use modern technology to give animals more control over their environment, day and night, and to make them less dependent on us for what they want and need. If we house animals under human care we should do it at the highest standards, using all the available tools. More on that in another blog and check out our 24/7 animal wellbeing page.

Of course, not everything is possible all the time, nor is this necessary at all times. Live is full of restrictions, and animals can cope or learn to cope with these, and even better, exert their agency positively. 

If we put ourselves in their 'shoes' then I think we would come to the conclusion that the real choices and control over the environment for most animals in captivity at the moment are not all they can be, and the good news, we - you and I, can do something about that.

You could do this at your facility: look around, think about choices and control the animals have you care for. When do they have it, over what, who decides, etc.? Only when we spend time thinking deeply about this and in combination with observations we can identify what is currently been done and what we can do to improve animal care. How we can add more choice and control, have open access, and indoor and outdoor areas that have similar value and opportunities, and more. It is not about acceptable or good, it should be the best we can do.

To us to challenge, to be innovative and creative, to accept the challenge so when one is asked the question in the future what it would be like to be in their shoes... fins, paws, feet... you might be able to answer “well if I would be an …. I think I would like to live in this place a lot!"


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