A ten-stage protocol for assessing the welfare of individual non-captive wild animals: free-roaming horses (Equus ferus Caballus) as an example.
Knowledge of the welfare status of wild animals is vital for informing debates about the ways in which we interact with wild animals and their habitats. Currently, there is no published information about how to scientifically assess the welfare of free-roaming wild animals during their normal day-to-day lives. Using free-roaming horses as an example, we describe a ten-stage protocol for systematically and scientifically assessing the welfare of individual non-captive wild animals. The protocol starts by emphasising the importance of readers having an understanding of animal welfare in a conservation context and also of the Five Domains Model for assessing welfare. It goes on to detail what species-specific information is required to assess welfare, how to identify measurable and observable indicators of animals' physical states and how to identify which individuals are being assessed. Further, it addresses how to select appropriate methods for measuring/observing physical indicators of welfare, the scientific validation of these indicators and then the grading of animals' welfare states, along with assigning a confidence score. Finally, grading future welfare risks and how these can guide management decisions is discussed. Applying this ten-stage protocol will enable biologists to scientifically assess the welfare of wild animals and should lead to significant advances in the field of wild animal welfare.