Brumby welfare

If people would just leave brumbies, mustangs, and other free-roaming horses alone, they’d be able to live peaceful, happy lives with good welfare. Right?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Judging the welfare of wild, free-roaming animals actually isn’t something scientists have had the means to do, until now. Australian and New Zealand researchers have just developed a scientific protocol for assessing the quality of life of these animals, which—prior to their project—had been lacking. Without such a protocol, they said, people haven’t really been able to know whether those wild animals were actually living good, “happy” lives, or not.

“One of the challenges working in animal welfare is that many people have their own opinions on what good or bad welfare is, and many people often think that welfare is easy to assess,” said Andrea Harvey, animal welfare veterinarian and PhD candidate, in the Faculty of Science at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia.

“However, when we really think about what welfare is—how animals feel and what kinds of mental experiences they’re having—we realize that it is actually incredibly challenging to assess,” she said.

Accurate welfare assessment requires objectivity, scientific validity, and repeatability, according to Harvey. “We need a process that we can be confident will always lead us to make the same assessment, one that different people can use and also reach the same assessment,” she said.

To rise to that challenge, Harvey and her team developed a 10-step welfare assessment protocol for evaluating the physical and emotional status of free-roaming wild animals in general. The protocol consists of an emphasis on understanding the Five Domains Model for assessing animal welfare, and in particular within a conservation context, she said. It details which kind of information about individual species needs to be considered, how to determine aspects that can be accurately observed and measured, and how to identify individual animals.

The protocol then goes into scientific specifics about measuring and validating welfare indicators, scoring confidence levels, and creating grades for levels of welfare compromise, Harvey explained. The grades are relatable to other scientists and non-scientists, and they’re the aspect of the assessment which becomes useful in practical contexts such as evaluating the impacts of management actions.

Lack of such a protocol has led to many assumptions about wild animal welfare that might or might not be reflective of the animals’ real qualify of life, said Harvey.

“What many untrained people are doing when they are trying to assess an animal’s welfare is projecting their own feelings and emotions onto the animal—in other words, they’re anthropomorphising,” she said. “Whilst sometimes this might be quite accurate, other times it can be far from what the animal is actually feeling. So essentially, this is a very subjective way of assessing welfare, and different people can make different conclusions. It’s actually very open to interpretation.”

Even watching the horses in their environments doesn’t necessarily provide accurate information about their welfare, Harvey added. “You may only see tiny snippets of their life, unlike a pet that you may observe for many hours every single day,” she said.

Harvey’s specific field of research is Australian brumbies, but she created the protocol to be adaptable to multiple wild species because, prior to this research project, no such protocol existed, she said.

“In searching the literature for any studies scientifically and systematically assessing the welfare of any wild free-roaming animals, it became evident that there weren’t any,” said Harvey. “Whilst I was studying the welfare of free-roaming horses, I became aware of other researchers wanting to assess the welfare of a range of other wildlife, and so I realised that I could help with this by explaining the process that I was going through with horses.”

Harvey said she’s already applied the protocol in practice, in order to assess the welfare of brumbies—which have become the subject of intense political discussion. Her hope is that the work of her team will lead to clearer and more ethical decision-making with regard to the management of these free-roaming animals.

“Brumby management has become highly politicized, and I feel that people have lost sight of what the arguments are really about,” said Harvey. “Brumby management should be about the brumbies’ welfare—alongside the welfare of other species and the environment—and not about politics or personal opinions.”

Achieving that goal requires science-based information regarding the brumbies’ welfare and about how different management methods can impact their welfare, she said.

“This is what I am trying to achieve: bringing brumby welfare to the forefront of management decision-making,” said Harvey. “Until we can do this, and until we are doing it, brumby management will not be about their welfare.”

The Ten-Stage Protocol for Assessing the Welfare of Individual Non-Captive Wild Animals: Free-Roaming Horses (Equus Ferus Caballus) as an Example, by Andrea M. Harvey 1,*, Ngaio J. Beausoleil 2, Daniel Ramp 1 and David J. Mellor is open access and can be read here.

Read more about Andrea Harvey’s work on Brumby welfare here.

Learn more about Horse Welfare Assessment by downloading this guide (sign up required).