The Relevance of Operant Behavior in Conceptualizing the Psychological Well-Being of Captive Animals

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Erin B Rasmussen, M Christopher Newland, Ethan Hemmelman
Perspectives on Behavior Science

The term “psychological well-being” is used in reference to husbandry with animals in human care settings such as research, agriculture, and zoos. This article seeks to clarify and conceptualize the term based upon two approaches that draw from several bodies of literature: the experimental analysis of behavior, experimental psychology, animal welfare and husbandry, farm animal behavior, zoo husbandry, and ethology. One approach focuses on the presence of problem behavior such as stereotypies, depressive-like behavior, and aggression, and emphasizes the conditions under which aberrant behavior in animals under human care occurs. The second approach examines what might be considered wellness by emphasizing opportunities to engage with its environment, or the absence of such opportunities, even if problematic behavior is not exhibited. Here, access to an interactive environment is relatively limited so opportunities for operant (voluntary) behavior could be considered. Designing for operant behavior provides opportunities for variability in both behavior and outcomes. Operant behavior also provides control over the environment, a characteristic that has been a core assumption of well-being. The importance of interactions with one’s environment is especially evident in observations that animals prefer opportunities to work for items necessary for sustenance, such as food, over having them delivered freely. These considerations raise the importance of operant behavior to psychological well-being, especially as benefits to animals under human care.


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