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Scientists can now read the emotions and signs of well-being in wild animals

In a groundbreaking development, Dr. Andrea Harvey of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has devised an innovative, holistic framework. This pioneering model serves to evaluate the mental and psychological well-being of wild animals, marking a significant stride in the sphere of animal welfare.

This study’s importance is rooted in its capacity to revolutionize conservation endeavors. Traditionally, conservation efforts have heavily relied on monitoring population figures and reproductive success rates. However, Dr. Harvey’s research introduces a new angle to the field, putting the spotlight on the quality of life of wild animals.

“With a shift in perspective, we can detect early signs of species challenges and population decreases, paving the way for more effective conservation strategies,” explains Dr. Harvey. 

She observes that while there has been extensive research on the welfare of domestic and farm animals, focusing on emotional states such as stress, pain, and fear, the same attention has not been afforded to wild animals. Dr. Harvey aims to address this disparity, shedding light on the individual lives, feelings, and mental experiences of wild creatures.

How the research is done

Her research, an integral part of her PhD thesis at the UTS Centre for Compassionate Conservation, zeroes in on Australia’s free-roaming wild horses, known as brumbies. Despite its initial focus, the model she developed presents a flexible approach, allowing for its application across a multitude of wildlife species.

The choice of brumbies for the study was strategic. The welfare of horses in domestic environments has been extensively studied, offering an invaluable gateway into the world of wild animals. Her study was recently featured in the journal Animals.

The 10-Stage Protocol

Dr. Harvey’s novel approach, named the “10 Stage Protocol,” encompasses physical and behavioral indicators. It captures both negative and positive mental experiences in wild animals, offering a comprehensive view of their well-being.

“If you have a dog, you’re familiar with their routine, preferences, and behavior in different scenarios. You can tell if they’re happy, sad, or distressed. This research takes that understanding and applies it to wild animals,” explained Dr. Harvey. 

“We may never fully know what an animal is thinking or feeling. But we do know that mental experiences stem from physical states, and we can measure these states.”

Several elements, including nutrition, physical environment, health, and behavioral interactions, can provide clues to an animal’s mental state. These range from negative experiences such as thirst, hunger, heat and cold discomfort, pain, fatigue, anxiety and fear, to positive ones like satiety, exercising agency, physical vitality and positive social interactions.

This inclusive approach amalgamates various scientific disciplines, including neuroscience, behavior, and neuroethology – the study of the neural basis of an animal’s natural behavior. It employs these fields to interpret the collected data and gain insights into animal wellbeing.

The study extends to many other animals

Dr. Harvey’s current collaboration extends to researchers studying Australian water birds, such as the straw-necked ibis and pelicans. As indicators of water quality and wetland health, these birds can provide valuable information to guide management decisions in the Murray Darling Basin.

The well-being of koalas, officially declared endangered in NSW, is also a focal point. Unlike previous koala research that centered mainly on survival and disease, Dr. Harvey’s study aims to evaluate koala well-being holistically, a perspective that could influence policy decisions around conservation and habitat protection.

Furthermore, Dr. Harvey is working with other researchers on the welfare of kangaroos and dingoes at a field station in southern Queensland. 

This study will focus on the predator-prey relationship, as well as the impact of climate change and drought recovery on these species. Each animal species brings with it unique challenges, including the identification of individuals, evaluation of mental experiences in large populations, and considerations for different environments and habitats.

Incredibly complex task

Studying the mental experiences of wild animals is a complex task. The lack of close human-animal relationships and the difficulty in observing wild animals for extended periods pose significant challenges. However, Dr. Harvey has leveraged innovative methods such as remote camera traps to collect fine-detail data on wild animal behavior, including body posture and facial expressions.

Dr. Harvey’s pioneering research could bring about a transformative shift in the field of conservation biology, offering valuable insights into the mental experiences of wild and endangered animals.

She concludes: “Welfare assessments need to be part of all wildlife monitoring, and ultimately all environmental policy decision making. It is essential to consider not just individual species, but also interactions between different species, and their ecosystems.”

In its entirety, Dr. Harvey’s work is an important stride in improving our understanding of wild animal welfare. It opens up new avenues for integrating animal welfare into conservation efforts and policy decisions. The results of this research could potentially redefine how we perceive and approach the wellbeing of wildlife, offering a more empathetic lens to view the lives of these creatures.

More about animal emotions

Animal emotions, often a subject of much debate, are a growing field of study within the larger discipline of animal behavior and cognition. There are several key points to consider:

Existence of Emotions

Scientific consensus increasingly supports the idea that at least some animals likely experience emotions. These animals often include mammals and birds, as they exhibit behaviors that appear to mirror human emotional responses. 

However, the precise nature and complexity of these emotions are still largely unknown and a topic of ongoing research.

Many animals exhibit behaviors associated with various emotions. Dogs wag their tails when happy, purr or hiss to show contentment or displeasure, and many animals show signs of distress when separated from their social groups. Some animals also display signs of grief when they lose a close companion.

Neurological Evidence

Many animals have similar brain structures to humans, which are involved in processing emotions. For example, the amygdala and other parts of the limbic system are associated with emotional processing in humans, and these structures are also found in many other mammals. This suggests that these animals may have the capacity to experience emotions.

Animal Stress and Fear

Stress and fear responses have been well-documented in animals. These responses can often be measured physiologically, through changes in heart rate, cortisol levels, and other stress hormones.

Positive Emotions

There is also evidence suggesting that many animals can experience positive emotions. For instance, rats have been observed to “laugh” or make specific chirping sounds when they play or are tickled. Some animals also show signs of enjoyment during social interactions or while exploring their environment.

Empathy and Altruism

Some animals show behaviors indicative of empathy or altruism, suggesting they might be capable of complex emotional responses. For example, rats will work to free a trapped cage-mate, even when they can obtain a food reward instead.

Animal Personality

Animals of many species show individual differences in behavior that are consistent over time, a concept often referred to as animal personality. These behavioral differences might be linked to differences in emotional experiences or responses.


It’s important to avoid anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to animals – when studying animal emotions. While it’s tempting to interpret animal behaviors through a human lens, we must be cautious in doing so. Animals might experience emotions, but these emotions might not be exactly like human emotions.


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