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Development of a behavioural welfare assessment tool for routine use with captive elephants

Yon, Lisa; Williams, Ellen; Harvey, Naomi; Archer, Lucy

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Associate Professor

Ellen Williams

Naomi Harvey

Lucy Archer


There has been much concern in recent years about the welfare of elephants in zoos across North America and Europe. While some previous studies have assessed captive elephant welfare at a particular point in time, there has been little work to develop methods which could be used for regular, routine welfare assessment. Such assessment is important in order to track changes in welfare over time. A welfare assessment tool should be rapid, reliable, and simple to complete, without requiring specialist training and facilities; welfare assessments based on behavioural observations are well suited to this purpose. This report describes the development of a new elephant behavioural welfare assessment tool designed for routine use by elephant keepers. Tool development involved: (i) identification of behavioural indicators of welfare from the literature and from focus groups with relevant stakeholders; (ii) development of a prototype tool; (iii) testing of the tool at five UK zoological institutions, involving 29 elephants (representing 46% of the total UK captive elephant population of 63 animals); (iv) assessment of feasibility and reliability of aspects of the prototype tool; (v) assessment of the validity of each element of the tool to reflect the relevant behaviour by comparing detailed behavioural observations with data from the prototype tool; (vi) assessment of known-groups criterion validity by comparing prototype tool scores in individuals with demographics associated with better or worse welfare; (vii) development of a finalised tool which incorporated all elements of the tool which met the criteria set for validity and reliability. Elements of the tool requiring further consideration are discussed, as are considerations for appropriate application and interpretation of scores. This novel behavioural welfare assessment tool can be used by elephant-holding facilities for routine behavioural welfare monitoring, which can inform adjustments to individual welfare plans for each elephant in their collection, to help facilities further assess and improve captive elephant welfare. This study provides an example of how an evidence-based behavioural welfare assessment tool for use by animal caretakers can be developed within the constraints of zoo-based research, which could be applied to a range of captive species.


Yon, L., Williams, E., Harvey, N., & Archer, L. (2019). Development of a behavioural welfare assessment tool for routine use with captive elephants. PLoS ONE, 14(2), Article e0210783.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 2, 2019
Online Publication Date Feb 6, 2019
Publication Date Feb 6, 2019
Deposit Date Jan 11, 2019
Publicly Available Date Jan 11, 2019
Journal PLOS ONE
Electronic ISSN 1932-6203
Publisher Public Library of Science
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 14
Issue 2
Article Number e0210783
Public URL
Publisher URL


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