Over the past two decades, the issue of farm animal welfare has made important strides. Some of the very worst factory farm practices have been banned, like veal calf crates or barren battery cages throughout the European Union.
What do we mean by animal welfare? To Compassion, it means that animals are fit, healthy and happy. But, to some, it seems that animal welfare is satisfactory if the animals are in a neutral state. A state of managed existence which is not particularly unhealthy or particularly unhappy.
But is that what we want for them?
Decent animal welfare is neither ‘high’ nor ‘low.’ It’s what the animals deserve. It’s about letting them live humanely and compassionately and giving them what they need to fulfil their behavioural and psychological needs.
But I’m concerned animal welfare is being hijacked. Its true meaning for the animals is being lost.
Policy makers, industry lobbyists and scientists are redefining animal welfare as a way to measure animal well-being. These “technical measurables” are all well and good. But all too often they become excuses to carry on factory farming and other cruel and unnecessary practices. It is happening in subtle and disturbing ways.
For example, it’s being argued that a ban on debeaking of chickens will lead to a decline in welfare standards. They even say they’re protecting the animals from us! You’ve heard of “greenwashing”. Now, there’s “animal welfare washing”! Even, the British government talks about “sustainable intensification.”
This situation is simply unacceptable. For the animals, the environment and our own health, we need to end factory farming now. We need to grow food to feed directly to people. Where animals are farmed, they should be raised free-range, organically and sustainably. For all our sakes, we can’t afford to do anything else.
A recent post here prompted my colleague, Peter Stevenson, to tell me about a prayer for animals attributed to St Basil of Caesarea (329-379 AD).
‘May we realise that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee better in their place than we in ours.’
The blog that Peter and I were discussing was It’s good to be alive! It was written while I was on holiday with my wife, Helen. We were bird watching on Lundy, the largest island in the Bristol Channel. In the post, I reflected upon a Peregrine.
One morning, as I went through the gate to our cottage, I was nearly hit by a whoosh of wings as a grey-blue bolt flashed past. It was a stunning male Peregrine. Rising in an instant, he closed wings tight and plunged like a bullet. This was the fabled Peregrine ‘stoop’ and boy, was he fast! He dived across the valley in the blink of an eye, pulling out within a whisker of the ground and rose triumphantly. Banking effortlessly, he rippled blue wings and was away across the fields, over the farm and out of sight. This was Peregrine at play, I thought. There wasn’t any hapless prey in sight. He dived in the wind for the sheer joy of it.
Watching the Peregrine brought to mind how animal welfare is not just about animals being free from ‘unnecessary’ pain and suffering, whatever ‘unnecessary’ means. It’s also about a positive state of well-being. It’s about animals having the ability to express themselves, to find joy and excitement. Yes, being free from illness, injury, fear or distress is all highly important. But so too is the scope to do what comes naturally: grazing on grass, scratching at the ground, or closing wings and hurtling at tremendous speed just for fun.
Even after we got back home, the Peregrine was still foremost on my mind. Witnessing his freedom and joy had made a profound impression. He didn’t live, as in the wise words of St Basil, ‘for us alone’. He lived for himself, enjoying the sweetness of life on Lundy.
To me, those who deny the emotional lives of animals today, who want farmed animals to exist in a state of managed existence, are akin to those who once denied animals feel pain.
Decent animal welfare is not just about freedom from ‘unnecessary’ pain and suffering. It’s about well-being. And the ability to express themselves, like the Peregrine on Lundy I was so lucky to see.