The subtle body language of koalas and the long periods that they spend sleeping high up in trees presents many challenges in assessing their emotions. However, a new framework tool may help in uncovering their mental states.

Today, in what seems to be our never-ending search for happiness, we often describe our longings as the quest for “quality of life.” That idea and the coinage of that phrase, though, actually date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when they were often used in debates about social crises and social progress. Despite the various political and social positions taken in such arguments, we all seemed to agree that quality of life was the arbiter and goal for any controversy.

In the end, though, quality of life is a highly subjective measure of happiness. Factors that play a role vary according to personal preferences, but they often include family life, mental and physical health, safety and the condition of the natural environment where you reside.

We even extend use of the phrase when speaking about our domestic animals. If you have a cat or a dog, for example, you know your pet’s personality and how he or she behaves in certain circumstances. You know if the cat or dog you share your home with is happy, distressed or sad; in other words, you feel confident that you can assess your fur baby’s quality of life.

But would it be possible to bring that kind of understanding to wild animals?


With our domestic animals, such as dogs, it’s far easier to determine whether they are happy, distressed or sad than it is with wild animals.

Researchers in Australia are trying to do just that. In fact, now, for the first time, a holistic framework for assessing the mental and psychological well-being of wild animals has been developed. And, what’s more, this new advance promises to revolutionize conservation efforts. Instead of focusing solely on population numbers and reproductive success of wildlife, scientists are hoping to use the new framework tool to explore their quality of life.

This shift in perspective could provide crucial early warning signals about the challenges that species face and their population declines. And, as wildlife faces ever more threats to their survival, it comes just in the nick of time.

Evaluating extinctions to instigate conservation actions

The Earth is no stranger to mass extinctions. Throughout its 4.6-billion-year history, the planet has undergone five of them. You’re probably familiar with the asteroid that sent the dinosaurs into oblivion; and 200 million years before that inferno, all life on Earth was nearly ended by ceaseless volcanic eruptions. Most scientists agree that we are now living through a sixth mass extinction, but this one isn’t caused by world-destroying space rocks or lava-spewing volcanoes—it’s caused by us. Today’s humans are the first threat to biodiversity caused by a single species living on the planet itself.


Australian “brumbies”—feral, free-roaming wild horses in the country’s alpine regions—have become well adapted to almost every Australian habitat, including forests, rocky ranges, tropical grasslands and wetlands. They were chosen as study subjects since they bridge the divide between domestic horses and wildlife.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in April 2023 concludes that not only is the sixth mass extinction real, but it may also be further along than we expected. That’s because nature moves slowly (after all, its happenings are sometimes measured in epochs). The deleterious effects suffered by the biodiversity on Earth today are likely the result of the poor environmental choices made by humans as long as 40 years ago. While animals, such as small birds, might experience these effects within 13 years, larger animals will feel the hurt decades down the road. Some use the analogy that we are just now starting to hear the canary in the coal mine, even though it’s been chirping for years.

Scientists say that even if humans radically changed their ecological course tomorrow, population declines would still occur, essentially “locking in” downward trends until 2050. That makes a concentrated, global conservation effort to try to reverse this chain of events more pressing than ever.

Measuring physical states to understand mental experiences

While research on the welfare of domestic and farm animals has been considerable—including that on indicators of emotional states such as fear, pain and stress—the individual feelings, lives and mental experiences of wild animals is far less known.

Blackish with white necks and underparts—and with beautiful, iridescence feathers on their upperparts—straw-necked ibis typically feed in farm paddocks, grasslands and sporting fields. The well-being of these waterbirds can serve as indicators of water quality and wetland health. ©Laurie Boyle, flickr

To bridge that gap, researchers from the Center for Compassionate Conservation at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney studied “brumbies,” the free-roaming, wild horses from Australia’s alpine regions. Since horse welfare has been studied in domestic environments, the brumbies were chosen as the bridge to wild animals.

Although we can never be certain what’s going through the minds of animals and exactly what they’re feeling, we do know that mental experiences arise from physical states. Behavioral interactions, health, nutrition and the physical environment all provide clues about the mental conditions of animals. Luckily, we can directly measure these states, whether they are positive ones—such as exercising agency, physical vitality, pleasant social interactions and satiety—or negative ones—such as anxiety, fear, fatigue, cold or heat discomfort, hunger, pain or thirst. Then, by bringing together different areas of scientific knowledge, including behavioral studies, neuroscience investigations and neuroethology (the study of the neural basis of an animal’s natural behavior), the collected data can be interpreted to gain insights into wild animal well-being.

This newly developed, comprehensive, conceptual framework, called the “10 Stage Protocol,” includes behavioral and physical indicators for both negative and positive mental experiences in wild animals. Recently published in the science journal Animals, with the title Mental Experiences in Wild Animals: Scientifically Validating Measurable Welfare Indicators in Free-Roaming Horses, it is widely applicable for evaluating many wildlife species.


Although we can never be certain about a wild animal’s mental condition, we do know that mental experiences arise from physical states. Luckily, we can measure these states, such as a pleasant social interaction.

Calculating koala well-being to create compassionate programs

University of Technology Sydney researchers are now collaborating with scientists studying Australian waterbirds, such as pelicans and straw-necked ibis. These birds portend water quality and wetland health, which could aid management decisions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The welfare of koalas, which have been declared endangered in New South Wales, is also under scrutiny. Previous koala research has focused primarily on disease and survival. With the help of the 10 Stage Protocol, however, evaluating overall koala well-being will help in making policy decisions about conservation and habitat protection. Other researchers studying the welfare of dingoes and kangaroos at a field station in southern Queensland are using the framework to study predator-prey relationships and the impact of climate change and drought recovery on wildlife.

Assessing mental health to help all animals—both human and nonhuman types

The scientists acknowledge that studying the mental experiences of wild animals compared to domesticated ones is challenging. With wildlife, identifying individuals and considering their different environments and habitats is difficult. Too, the absence of close human relationships with single animals and the difficulty in observing them for extended periods pose significant hurdles. For these reasons, researchers have traditionally shied away from such studies.


I think that all animals—domestic and wild—have a vast array of feelings that we haven’t yet recognized and that finally shedding light on them will transform our conservation strategies.

However, innovative methods, such as remote camera traps, have proven valuable in collecting fine-detail data on wild animal behavior, including body posture and facial expressions.

Although some may think that trying to assess the mental well-being of wild animals is still just a little too out-there and woo-woo, I can’t help believing that shedding light on the feelings and thoughts of wild and endangered animals—just as we have recently brought human mental health issues out of the closet—could entirely transform the field of conservation biology.

And that would be all to the good.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,