2012 News

Zoos and Aquaria take the lead on animal welfare

Date: 04th September

Work Group: AWRED

Activity Type: Standards & Guidelines

A remarkable Australia-wide welfare strategy for those who keep animals for exhibition purposes is nearing completion, but already there have been some unexpected benefits for the industry.

Zoos and aquaria enrich the community, providing recreational activities for families, friends and tourists while meeting key objectives in education, conservation and research which are all underpinned by positive animal welfare practices.

The Zoo and Aquarium Association is part of a team of people developing new standards and guidelines for exhibition animals using the overarching principles of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).

Standards will cover responsibilities for zoo, aquarium and museum operators (that have live exhibits) including staff, security and enclosures, dietary and water requirements, reproduction processes, transportation, capture and release, identification and record keeping, and euthanasia.

The partnership between the not-for-profit Association and the AAWS has seen several projects launched and completed in the past 12 months, including:

  • A new set of Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Exhibited Animals, including Taxon Specific Standards
  • The development of an online training program in tandem with Macquarie University, to teach animal managers and stakeholders about the national standards and guidelines as they’re implemented
  • A successful animal welfare conference and workshop in Sydney which brought together Association members and external stakeholders
  • The incorporation of the Five Domains, areas for animal managers to focus their welfare efforts on, grown from the Five Freedoms used by the RSPCA

The early benefits have come in the cross-pollination of ideas to inform a national approach to captive animal welfare.

The Association has sought input across the projects from a diverse range of groups, including the architects of the Australian Horse Welfare Protocol, bioethics experts from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), local groups the RSPCA, Biosecurity Australia and the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), and the Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability (ARIES) at Macquarie University.

The collaboration provides a solid and encouraging example of how industry and governments can work together.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and KPMG funded a two-day Association conference in Sydney in March to explore the issues for stakeholders. It featured forums where members were designated roles as zoo keepers, curators and vets, to ensure broad input and discussion of the standards.

The Association used a quote from Charles Darwin to set the tone for the proceedings: ‘In the long history of humankind (and animal kind too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed’.

Manager of Professional Standards, Hayley Findlay, says members relished the opportunity to have their say and discuss the issues together and with external stakeholders such as the RSPCA and Animals Australia.

She says the organisation sees animal welfare as core business, and has adopted the term ‘better practice’ as opposed to ‘best practice’ to signify continuous improvement.

With its members hosting more than 17 million visitors and educating over 600,000 students each year, it’s critical that the Zoo and Aquarium Association sets the bar high for delivery of animal welfare standards and practice.

To this end, five of the leading Association members contributed $3000 each to fund Taxon-specific standards, which apply to particular taxa or animal groups:

  • macropods (kangaroos and wallabies)
  • ratites (emus, ostriches, cassowaries and rheas)
  • crocodilians – fresh and salt water crocodiles and alligators
  • koalas, and
  • wombats.

The standards include specific guidelines that ensure the wellbeing of animals kept for display, conservation, education or research, and the skills and knowledge of those responsible for their care.

In the case of a koala, for example, there is a common misconception that koalas get all of their water requirements from their food, but they often come down to the ground to drink in hot weather. Therefore, the standards list the requirement that koalas must always have access to fresh drinking water.

The language includes ‘must’ and ‘should’ to define the difference between standards and guidelines and the documents are written so that the responsibility for good welfare is shared between all animal managers.

Hayley Findlay says the standards include a focus on ‘positive’ welfare and the psychological wellbeing of captive animals, illustrated by the standard for enrichment.

Keepers must ensure that animals receive species-appropriate enrichment, including:

  • cognitive enrichment - provision of mental stimulation through progressive learning
  • occupational enrichment– provision of objects for the animals to manipulate, encouraging an increase in activity, curiosity and motor skills
  • sensory enrichment – providing diversity for the five senses, which may include herbs and spray scents, items that make noise when touched, uncommon food items, wallows with mud
  • social enrichment – providing opportunities to interact with compatible animals whether they are of the same or different species.

The Five Domains also focuses on psychological health and the belief that when an animal’s physical requirements are met and an animal is provided choice, the animal is able to ‘feel’ comfortable within its environment.

The Five Domains were developed by Professor David Mellor and associates at the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre (AWSBC) at Massey University, New Zealand.

Informed by current research and scientific studies, they build upon the concept of the Five Freedoms, the 1965 compact of rights developed for people to improve the management of the animals in their care.

The Five Domains list areas of potential welfare compromise for animal managers to focus their efforts on:

Physical Domains

1.      Nutrition: e.g. appropriate consumption of nutritious foods is a pleasurable experience

2.      Environmental: e.g. benign conditions offer adaptive choices and variety

3.      Health: e.g. physically sound (uninjured, disease-free) animals enjoy good health

4.   Behaviour: e.g. environment-focused and inter-animal activities are satisfying and engaging

Mental Domain

5.   Mental or Affective State: e.g. animals experience comfort, pleasure, interest and confidence

The Zoo and Aquarium Association believes that the Five Domains better represents what the industry is aiming for, as it effectively promotes the concept of better practice and continuous improvement.

The Association has already begun work on establishing an online training course for the new animal welfare standards, in a joint project with Macquarie University’s educational arm, the Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability.

Modules for the course are being developed and training will be implemented for all stakeholders when the standards are complete.

The training course was an initiative of Association Executive Director, Martin Phillips, who wanted to see that zoo keepers, as the ‘front line’ stakeholders in animal welfare, understood the standards written for the animals in their care.

A Regulatory Impact Statement is currently being prepared for the legislation to go through the Ministerial Approvals Process, and an implementation period is yet to be decided.

Hayley Findlay says the industry will be invited to make submissions on the impact of the new animal welfare standards on their business. And while they recognise there will be change, she says members remain strongly committed to the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy.