New research sheds light on the mental experiences of wild animals

Dr. Andrea Harvey, a veterinarian and animal welfare scientist at the University of Technology Sydney, has developed a groundbreaking framework for assessing the mental and psychological well-being of wild animals. This pioneering study has the potential to revolutionize conservation efforts by shifting the focus from purely population numbers and reproductive success to the quality of life experienced by wild animals.

While significant research has been conducted on the welfare of domestic and farm animals, including indicators of emotional states like stress, pain, and fear, Dr. Harvey aims to bridge the gap by examining the individual lives, feelings, and mental experiences of wild animals. By gaining a deeper understanding of the well-being of wild animal populations, conservation efforts can be enhanced, and early warning signals for species challenges and population declines can be identified, leading to more effective conservation strategies.

Dr. Harvey’s study, conducted during her Ph.D. research at the UTS Center for Compassionate Conservation, focused on brumbies—free-roaming wild horses—from Australia’s alpine regions. However, the framework she developed, known as the “10 Stage Protocol,” can be applied to evaluate the well-being of many other wildlife species.

The framework encompasses physical and behavioral indicators for both negative and positive mental experiences in wild animals. By observing factors such as nutrition, the physical environment, health, and behavioral interactions, researchers can gather valuable insights into an animal’s mental state. These indicators include negative states such as thirst, hunger, discomfort from heat or cold, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and fear, as well as positive states such as satiety, exercising agency, physical vitality, and positive social interactions.

Dr. Harvey’s research not only has implications for wildlife conservation but also provides an indication of the state of the natural environment and its impact on human health and well-being. By scientifically validating measurable welfare indicators in wild animals, this holistic framework offers a new approach to understanding and safeguarding the mental well-being of animals living in their natural habitats.

Dr. Andrea Harvey’s groundbreaking approach to assessing the mental well-being of wild animals integrates various scientific disciplines, such as neuroscience, behavior, and neuroethology. By combining these fields of knowledge, researchers can interpret the collected data and gain insights into the overall well-being of animals.

Collaborating with fellow researchers, Dr. Harvey is currently studying Australian water birds like the straw-necked ibis and pelicans. These birds serve as indicators of water quality and wetland health, providing valuable information for managing the Murray Darling Basin.

The welfare of koalas, which are endangered in New South Wales, is another focus of Dr. Harvey’s research. Previous studies on koalas have primarily focused on survival and disease, but Dr. Harvey aims to evaluate their overall well-being to inform conservation efforts and habitat protection policies.

In collaboration with other researchers, Dr. Harvey is also studying the welfare of kangaroos and dingoes at a field station in southern Queensland. This research examines the predator-prey relationship and explores the impact of climate change and drought recovery on these species.

Each species presents unique challenges for welfare assessment, including identifying individuals, studying mental experiences in large populations, and considering diverse environments and habitats.

Dr. Harvey acknowledges the difficulties in studying the mental experiences of wild animals compared to domesticated ones. The absence of close human relationships with individual animals and the challenges of observing them for extended periods pose significant obstacles.

However, innovative methods like remote camera traps have proven valuable in collecting detailed data on wild animal behavior, including body posture and facial expressions.

Dr. Harvey’s groundbreaking research has the potential to transform the field of conservation biology by shedding light on the mental experiences of wild and endangered animals.

She emphasizes the importance of incorporating welfare assessments into wildlife monitoring and environmental policy decision-making, taking into account not only individual species but also their interactions and the health of their ecosystems.

Source: University of Technology, Sydney

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