Research projects in welfare biology

18 Oct 2018

Animal Ethics is promoting research in welfare biology to get a better understanding of the state of wellbeing of wild animals and the best ways to help them. With this aim, we are working on a series of research project drafts to illustrate the kind of studies that could be developed in this research field. We hope these ideas for projects can encourage researchers to explore questions relevant for reducing wild animal suffering and inspire people to come up with new ideas for research studies that can have an impact on the wellbeing of wild animals.

The following are the sketches for several drafts of projects in welfare biology. Throughout the following months we will be sharing more detailed versions of them, with much more extensive suggestions. In addition, we will be introducing other ideas for research projects in welfare biology and related areas soon.


1. Exploring methods to assess the welfare of animals living in the wild

During the last few decades scientists have increasingly shown interest in evaluating the wellbeing of animals through the development of welfare assessment methods. Most welfare assessments have been focused on farmed and laboratory animals, but there have also been efforts to study the welfare of companion animals and working animals, as well as the welfare of wild animals kept in zoos, parks, and rescue centers. Assessments of animal welfare vary depending on the targeted species and goals of each assessment, but they often include the evaluation of several parameters in the areas of health, physiology, behavior, and environmental conditions. Although welfare assessment methods have been usually designed for captive animals, some attempts have been proposed to assess the welfare of  animals living in the wild. However, their emphasis has always been put on evaluating the harms caused by human activities, neglecting non-anthropogenic welfare issues suffered by wild animals. Since much research is still needed to create methods to assess the wellbeing of wild animals, independently of whether harms are anthropogenic or not, an analysis of the frameworks, approaches, models, criteria, and indicators already proposed by animal welfare scientists may be valuable for creating the foundations of a welfare assessment method targeting animals living in the wild.


Determine which aspects of welfare assessment methods could be promising to assess the welfare of animals living in the wild.

  • Review current welfare assessment frameworks for different animals, especially those targeting wild animals.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using aspects (concepts, criteria, indicators, approaches) of current welfare assessment methods for animals living in the wild.
Expected impacts
  • Project results will provide key insights for drawing a path towards a welfare assessment framework for animals living in the wild.
  • Results will also help us get a better picture of current animal welfare assessment methods.

2. Effects of oral rabies vaccination programs on wild animal welfare

With the goal of eliminating rabies, a lethal zoonotic viral disease, many countries have developed public health campaigns to prevent rabies both in domestic animals (cattle, cats, dogs) and wild animals. Oral rabies vaccination campaigns targeting wild animals, which have been carried out since the 1970s in various countries in Europe and since the 1980s in North America, have shown a high degree of success in controlling the disease. Although these campaigns have been developed with the epidemiological goal of eradicating a zoonotic disease for the sake of human beings, they also have direct and indirect effects on the welfare of wild animals.


Assess the effects of oral rabies vaccination programs on the welfare of wild animal populations.

  • Assess the effects of rabies on the health of wild animals.
  • Calculate the reduction of wild rabies cases produced by oral vaccination programs.
  • Determine the effects of oral rabies vaccination campaigns on the survival and reproduction rates of targeted wild animal populations.
  • Assess whether there are adverse side-effects of oral vaccination for wild animals.
  • Consider possible flow-on effects on non-targeted species in the ecosystem.
 Expected impacts
  • This project would be an attempt to approach wild animal intervention programs from the perspective of the animals’ wellbeing.
  • The results of this project would give us insights about the potential benefits of oral vaccination campaigns for wild animals.
  • It would help us promote further research on the welfare effects of vaccination campaigns against other diseases endured by wild animals.

3. Ways to promote wild animal welfare in urban areas

Urban ecology has long studied wild animals living in urban, suburban, and rural environments. This has been often done because of the effects these animals may have on human wellbeing. However, the conditions that can affect the welfare of these animals have not been appraised yet. The results obtained in the examination of urban environments may not be suitable to being extrapolated to other animals given the differences that are present in their situations. Urban wild animals are exposed to an increased variety of stresses relative to their non-urban counterparts, which include human disturbance, heat, noise, and pollution. On the other hand, animals in urban environments may also have advantages with effects on their welfare in terms of opportunities for sheltering and food, and in some cases, due to lack of predators. Still, urban welfare biology may be a promising starting point for welfare biology, because urban and suburban areas are among the ones where pilot projects to assess and improve the situation of wild animals may be safer and less difficult to carry out.


Investigate how to best proceed to improve the welfare and reduce the harms suffered by animals living in urban environments.

  • Assess animal population dynamics of animals living in urban environments.
  • Examine how animal population control measures in urban areas can positively or negatively affect the welfare of the animals directly affected and other animals as well.
  • Assess the effects of current and future urban development on wild animal welfare.
  • Identify cost-effective changes to different kinds of urban developments to reduce wild animal mortality rates and/or distress (both on a large and small scale).
  • Suggest strategies for promoting these changes.
  • Investigate methods and impacts resulting from promoting awareness of urban wild animal suffering among the public.
Expected impacts
  • Guidance for future efforts in reducing wild animal suffering in urban environments
  • Understanding of the specific ways in which wild animals are exposed to urban-related stresses
  • Realization of the importance (or unimportance) of involving the public in urban wild animal welfare advocacy

4. Investigating methods of reducing disease transmission among wild animals in urban areas

Wild animals face high risks of contracting infectious diseases in urban environments. This is because of the tendency for certain species to either thrive or decline in urban areas (thus increasing the abundance of certain animals), and the close confines in which these animals live with one another (due to a lack of available space for habitation in cities). Past research in urban wild animal pathology has focused primarily on diseases that are transmissible to humans, and preventive measures tend only to extend insofar as human welfare is concerned. Little research has been done to study the diseases which affect urban wild animal welfare alone. However, some research has been done to determine the ways in which specific diseases are transmitted between urban wild animals, and this information can be used to inform prescriptions and strategies for reducing general rates of disease transmission in urban environments.


Investigate methods of reducing disease transmission among wild animals living in human-inhabited environments.

  • Identify and catalogue diseases which affect different animals in urban environments to obtain a better understanding of their pathology.
  • Analyze research concerning urban-specific disease transmission, and the ordinary behavior of different animals living in urban, suburban, and rural environments.
  • Suggest strategies for reducing urban wild animal disease transmission.
Expected impacts
  • Better understanding of what specific diseases affect urban wild animals in different environments.
  • Ready-to-go strategies to reduce the general prevalence of diseases affecting urban wild animal populations.

5. Review of the welfare costs of sexual competition

Sexual selection is limited due to its evolutionary costs to individuals’ fitness, and consequently where sexual selection is strong, there are often great costs to individuals. Studies have shown how strong sexual competition is correlated with high mortality rates. This suggests that there may also be a welfare cost imposed by sexual competition, but no studies have yet determined whether there is such a cost or attempted to quantify it. Doing so is important, for in species with very strong sexual competition it may be one of the main causes for mortality and suffering.


Determine the effects of sexual competition on the welfare of species where sexual selection is a dominant selective force.

  • Identify species where the main selective force is reproductive selection.
  • Identify the ways in which competing for a mate affect the welfare of both male and female individuals.
  • Analyze the welfare effects of sexual competition using quantitative and qualitative methods.
Expected Impacts
  • Greater understanding of the ways sexual competition causes suffering.
  • Greater understanding of the extent of suffering imposed by sexual competition.
  • Identification of species where sexual selection poses significant welfare costs.
  • The above impacts may lead to greater understanding of the potential for interventions in nature to reduce suffering caused by sexual selection.

6. Welfare impacts of extreme seasonal weather

Different species have different abilities to cope with extreme temperatures in their natural environments. While the welfare impacts of extreme temperatures are difficult to measure, mortality due to extreme temperature can be taken to indicate not only the amount of premature death that there is due to this cause, but also extreme temperature-related suffering. Dying due to extreme temperature, especially where similar temperatures persist over a season, can be expected to have a huge negative impact on welfare due to the long-time period over which an individual suffers.


Identify the species expected to suffer most due to extreme temperatures in a given environment.

  • Distinguish between mortality caused directly by extreme temperatures and mortality caused by extreme temperatures indirectly, e.g. by altering food or predator abundance.
  • Estimate the mortality rate due to extreme temperature for each species over a year (or several years).
  • Identify those species with the greatest rate of mortality due to extreme temperature.
  • Determine the effects of extreme temperatures on animal health and welfare for each species.
Expected Impacts
  • Identification of populations and species which are thought to suffer the most due to extreme temperatures.
  • Greater understanding of the degree to which extreme temperatures cause mortality as well as suffering across all species in a given environment.