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The Science of Animal Welfare

News Icon 12/08/2015

Interview with Don Broom

One of the most important tools in the box for challenging animal cruelty is animal welfare science (AWS). AWS uses rigorous scientific methods to study the welfare of animals, including those used in agriculture. We instinctively know keeping animals in cages is wrong. However, our views carry more weight when they’re supported by science; research which catalogues and quantifies the extent to which animals have good welfare or are suffering.

Foremost among animal welfare scientists is Donald Broom. He was appointed the first Professor of Animal Welfare in the world in the Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge in 1986. Professor Broom’s distinguished career includes university teaching, advising British and European political bodies, and writing key texts in animal welfare science, including Sentience and Animal Welfare in 2014 and Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare with Andrew F. Fraser.

Following publication of the fifth edition of Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare, I interviewed Professor Broom about a lifetime advocating the science of animal welfare:

Philip: The first edition of Farm Animal Behaviour was published in 1974 and you were involved with farmed animal welfare before that. How would you assess the progress made to date in the UK and Europe?

Donald: The scientific world and people in general did not consider animal welfare to be a scientific discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. Since I became Professor of Animal Welfare in Cambridge in 1986 I have been defining concepts and, together with other scientists, developing scientific assessment methods. We are now in a situation where, at least in the European Union, a scientific report is required before any legislation and most commercial standards or animal protection campaigns are initiated.

Forty years ago there was very little discussion about the welfare of farm animals, even though they’re the vast majority of animals used. The public are much more aware now that farm animals are all sentient beings. They generally believe they should be treated as individuals and know they continue to be poorly housed and managed. The major progress has been in establishing EU, and hence UK, laws. There’s also the development of publicly demanded standards by supermarkets, food retail and other commercial companies concerned with their public image.

As a result of this global development, teaching animal welfare science, both in educational establishments and in courses run by individuals, universities, and schemes (e.g., European Commission’s Better Training for Safer Food and the World Organisation for Animal Health’s courses on welfare during transport and slaughter), information about how to improve animal welfare is much more widely known than it was 40 years ago. But there are still many people in the world who use animals for food, other products, draught, companionship, experimentation, or entertainment who treat them badly.

Philip: Which developments in farmed animal welfare do you expect to see in the next 10 years?

Donald: New sources of information, for example, the Animal Welfare Science Hub, set up by the Animal Welfare Indicators project, as an entirely objective science-based resource, will become more important as a source of information about the welfare of farmed animals. I think, having just completed two books, that those looking in detail at the subject will continue to use books, either physically or the online versions. Another important information source, on specific topics, that will be used more and more, is the continually increasing set of scientific reports on the European Food Safety Authority website. A consequence of the ready availability of accurate information is that erroneous statements by animal industry bodies or animal protection societies are risky and hence more unlikely. Accurate animal welfare science information will continue to benefit animals.

Leg disorders in meat chickens
Leg disorders in meat chickens, their consequences for hock-burn, breast-blisters, etc. are all problems resulting from fast growth.

Up to now, few animal welfare problems that are a consequence of genetic selection and breeding have been remedied. Examples are selection for fast growth in broiler chickens and selection for high levels of milk production in dairy cows. This will change as consumers become more informed about breeding companies, and those who buy from them, who are equally to blame for the poor welfare. Consumers will refuse to buy products and production companies will force breeding companies to change. I consider leg disorders in meat chickens, their consequences for hock-burn, breast-blisters, etc. and allied problems all resulting from fast growth, are the most important animal welfare problem in the world at present. The UK government is among those who have delayed progress in remedying this situation. Much stronger standards and laws are needed. These will be forced by the public in the near future. I expect there to be similar pressure on improving dairy cattle welfare. The majority of milking cows suffer from lameness, mastitis or reproductive disorders. This can be changed by using welfare outcome indicators, such as specifying a maximum of 10 percent of cows lame or with mastitis, or with reproductive problems.

I expect many other changes to be forced by public pressure, such as improvements in fish welfare by refusing to buy salmon with chewed fins, and the banning of some products, including foie gras.

Philip: What are the biggest obstacles to change to improving the lives of animals raised for food?

Donald: Lack of information that is simple to understand when people buy animal products is an obstacle. In some cases, very little information is needed. For example, any supermarket customer can refuse to buy chicken with hock-burn or breast-blister visible. They can buy whole chicken whenever possible, rather than just legs or breast, as these may be from birds whose carcasses were separated to avoid the blemishes being seen by purchasers. Labelling with clear information is needed. Information can also allow people to go to supermarkets with good standards rather than those without them. There should be collaboration among all of the organisations interested in sustainability of production in promoting good labelling. Most consumers are concerned about impacts on the environment and fair trade as well as animal welfare.

Philip: How do you foresee the future of animal welfare science?

Donald: In 1986 there were about 20 animal welfare scientists, if we exclude those working on disease reduction. Now there are about 2,000. I expect this number to grow further because all universities in the world will need to teach the subject.

At present, animal welfare scientists are not well respected in the scientific community. This is partly because many biological and medical scientists are suspicious. They see it as a potential threat to their research activities. I think that they’re wrong. Good scientific information is good for all science. Perhaps the situation will change?

There are also difficulties in using terms like welfare, sentience, pain, awareness, feelings, and emotions. The prejudice against using them to describe complex brain processes has harmed scientific development. Perhaps this situation will continue to change.

The 5th edition of Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare by Donald M. Broom and Andrew F. Fraser is published by CABI.


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