In their shoes...

In their shoes...

I often talk to people about animals, about how we interact with them and how the ways we do this can impact on their welfare negatively or positively.
I often ask them to think about what it would be like to be in their position. This is a difficult thing to do and not without interpretational hurdles and problems, I know.

I bet anyone working with animals would love to be able to be that animal or species or individual for 1 day! What is the world like for them, how do they experience it, how and what do they think about, how do they feel and experience their world emotionally?
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…rather fins, paws, beaks….
There are many ways to ask and observe how animals experience their environment, from preference testing, cognitive bias, qualitative behaviour assessment, behavioural observation and more, the literature is abundant in research in animal welfare.

Considering that I cannot be a white rhino, cotton-top marmoset or iguana for a day I try to reason by analogy. When thinking of animals under human care and how we can provide for high standards of welfare I try to imagine what a certain situation is like, and so many questions come to mind.

For example, it is likely you know an animal who is constantly looking around and out for the caretakers, where they are, when and what they are doing. This animal is sitting a lot of time in a tunnel which 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, which can be a good thing as information seeking is an important part of an animal’s mental life. But if the frequency of this watching and monitoring through any of the sensory systems is very high I would consider this animal to have a very high level (too high) of vigilance behaviour. High vigilance takes away from time this 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.

This behaviour is often related to high unpredictability, the occurrence of “cheating” by caretakers (like shutting doors when the animals do not expect it), and a lack of anticipatory cues. Anticipatory cues can signal what is happening, when, where and who, it signals good and aversive events so animals can anticipate on what is coming rather then having to guess and figure it out, resulting in a lot of high vigilance behaviours. 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. The animal then has the time to move wherever he or she would like to be, rather then being surprised and caught somewhere undesired.

Note: If it is a frequent event, perhaps it is preferable that we would of course teach the animals to voluntarily participate in their health care therefore eliminating the need to capture.

A balance should be struck between predictability and unpredictability, with a favourable balance for the animals.

As a thought experiment, let's go to go back to the animal which spends all these 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 adding 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 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 were you want to be? You probably would want to be close to the kitchen door so you can quickly go through 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, larger and more comfy 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, I bet you do know animals who are concerned with being shut in or out. Animals who are identified as “difficult” as they convey to us that they do not like the way we interact with them. These animals are hard to convince it is a good thing to be managed in the way we seem fit. 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. I yet have to encounter a “24-hour Zoo” which operates to accommodate and facilitates the highest welfare standards for 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 shoes, then why should they have to choose, and choose so often, or have so little choice? We have to ask ourselves honestly what the real choices and control are the animals can exert over their environment. 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.

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.
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 very few.

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,

It is not about acceptable or good, it should be the best we can do and no less.

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 you might be able to answer “well, if I would be an …. I think I would like living in this place a lot!”

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