Whittaker, A. L., Golder-Dewar, B., Triggs, J. L. et al. 2021. Identification of animal-based welfare indicators in captive reptiles: A Delphi consultation survey. Animals 11(7), 2010.
There is an increasing focus on evidence-based welfare assessment by animal care staff in zoos, along with a strong interest in animal welfare by the zoo-visiting public, to the extent that this can influence their choice of institutions to visit. Regulatory oversight of animal welfare standards continues to strengthen across many jurisdictions. Zoos are increasingly formalizing their practices with the development and refinement of evidence-based welfare assessment tools. There has been a drive for welfare assessment tools to comprise both resource-based and animal-based measures. However, animal-based indicators are not always well characterized, in terms of their nature and whether they infer a positive or negative affective state. This is especially so for reptiles, which are often considered behaviorally inexpressive and are under-researched. In this study, a Delphi consultation approach was used to gather expert opinion on the suitability of potential animal-based indicators of welfare for inclusion in a welfare assessment tool across four families of reptiles: Agamidae, Chelidae, Pythonidae, and Testudinidae. Two rounds of online surveys were conducted eliciting responses from a global group of professionals who work with reptiles. In the first survey, respondents were provided with an author-derived list of potential animal-based indicators for consideration of their validity and practicality as welfare indicators. The indicators were refined for the second survey including only those indicators that were considered valid or practical on the first survey (≥4 on a 5-point Likert scale), and that achieved ≥70% consensus amongst experts. In the second survey, respondents were asked to re-evaluate the reliability and practicality of the indicators and to rank them on these facets. Eight to ten assessment indicators for each family of reptiles were identified from Survey 2. These indicators were often health related, for example, presence of oculo-nasal discharge or wounds. However, some true behavioral indicators were identified, such as showing species-specific interest and alertness. These indicators should now be incorporated into taxon-tailored welfare assessment tools for trial and validation in captive reptile populations. This study provides a next step towards developing reptile-specific animal welfare assessment tools for these often-overlooked animals.