Dr Rebecca Ledger uses the Five Domains Model for forensic animal behaviour analysis

{this post was co-authored by David Mellor}

How can we prosecute cases of animal cruelty when there is no physical evidence? Dr Rebecca Ledger told us. She uses the Five Domains Model, developed here in New Zealand, to explain the mental experiences of animals for cruelty prosecutions mounted in Canada.

The background

Retained as an expert witness by the British Columbia SPCA, Dr Ledger uses animal behaviour to demonstrate suffering. In a recent visit to New Zealand, jointly hosted by the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University, the SPCA, MPI, NZVA, VCNZ and VPIS, she gave a series of talks of particular relevance to those who may be called upon to be expert witnesses in animal cruelty cases.

Historically, prosecutions for animal cruelty relied on proving an animal suffered because of physical harm (e.g. injury, disease, malnourishment). But Dr Ledger has been able to demonstrate emotional suffering using behavioural evidence. She emphasised that welfare assessment using behaviour is not ‘fluffy science’ just because there is no physical evidence. However, there is a need to educate prosecutors and courts about the ways supportable inferences can be made about the emotional experiences of animals. This helps the legal system see cruelty cases through the same ‘lens’ as animal welfare and behaviour experts.

Dr Ledger explained how she writes her Expert Opinions and then described some case studies. Her Opinions begin with a brief summary of how scientific understanding of animal behaviour has developed and now allows the experiences animals can have to be cautiously inferred. Scientific references supporting these inferences are particularly important for this section. She also references the Five Domains Model for animal welfare assessment [1] and then goes on to use the Model to retrospectively assess the welfare of the animal(s) in question.

How is it done

Dr Ledger outlined eight questions we should ask and then answer for the courts. First, whether the animal can suffer i.e. is it sentient? This is where Rebecca shows judges that animals have the ability to suffer both physically and mentally. She has had better results when her Opinions started with these details. Here, the New Zealand Animal Welfare Amendment Act (No. 2) 2015, which recognises animals as sentient, should be immensely beneficial.

Question two asks if New Zealand legislation recognises suffering in animals – clearly it does. The definitions of ‘suffering’ all include mental states or experiences. The third and fourth questions ask if conditions are present that would cause the animal to suffer and which negative experiences (affective states) the animal would likely have. By using the Five Domains Model, she shows that her Opinion is science-based and this enhances the judges’ confidence in what is being concluded. The Model also encourages judges to think about the psychological impacts of specific impositions on the animal.

Questions five and six are to provide insight into the animal’s experiences at the time of the mistreatment. By focusing on the physical and/or behavioural evidence of suffering and how severe and/or protracted the suffering is, these questions help the court appreciate the importance of behavioural evidence. Emphasised here is that behaviours and their associated mental experiences have a function (e.g. fear enables an animal to respond to a perceived threat; aggression creates distance from what it is afraid of).

The seventh question asks if the suffering was necessary – could it have been avoided? For example, dog trainer claims that shock collars are the only way for dogs to learn. An expert witness here would need to be prepared with humane alternatives as examples. The final question focuses on intent – was the suffering inflicted wilfully?

An important caveat

Dr Ledger made it clear that there is a need to ‘choose our battles’. Losing a case may set a precedent that condones the cruelty that has occurred. Rebecca recommends starting with ‘easy wins’ and gradually moving forward from there. She purposely chose dogs because, as companion animals, they are often better understood and more people are sympathetic towards them.

  1. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.


One thought on “Dr Rebecca Ledger uses the Five Domains Model for forensic animal behaviour analysis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s