Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Are you living with an ambassador? Why do we care about animal welfare and animal rights?

Growing up with companion animals can influence your diet,your career choice, and the species you care about as an adult. And the effect seems dose dependent - the more animals you interact with, the stronger the influence.

Why have animals become a social issue? We seem to be seeing more literature, more discussion in the media, more advertisements from advocacy groups, about the treatment of animals, but why? They've been around longer than we have.

Professor James Serpell provided his own interesting answer to this question during a visit to Sydney last month, supported by the Human Animal Research Network (HARN).

He makes a number of points:
  • Ethical concerns about the treatment of non-human animals are not new. They have been a recurrent preoccupation throughout history, from Hunter-gatherer societies and the ancient Greeks to those living in the age of enlightenment and industrialisation;
  • Different cultures have taken different approaches to resolve ethical dilemmas, often by adopting novel “exonerative” belief systems (for example, Aristotle argued that it was okay to use animals because they were lower on the scale of nature than humans);
  • The current resurgence in interest in animal welfare and animal rights seems to be triggered by urbanisation, with a corresponding decline in rural values, and pet keeping, particularly our reliance on animals for social support.

Professor Serpell, a zoologist with expertise in avian behaviour by training, has been studying human-animal relations for decades. One of the things I found most interesting was his discussion about the influence of non-human animals on our lives.

He argues that companion animals and humans engage in a form of mutualism – an interspecies relationship where both species benefit from the association with one another. We provide animals with food, shelter, healthcare, protection from predators and companionship, and they provide us with social support.
But do they change our behaviour? 

Studies that Professor Serpell has conducted have found that social exposure to animals in childhood seems to expand our circle of compassion. Childhood pet-keeping is associated with support of animal causes later in life. Strong attachment to animals predicts avoidance of animal-food products later in life. In another study, animals were found to be a key influence in the choice to study veterinary science.

This is known as the “animal ambassador effect” – pets act as ambassadors for the rest of the animal kingdom.

This certainly rings true for me. It was early experiences with companion animals that probably had the most influence on my choice to become a vet. 
Can you think of ways that non-human animals have influenced you? 

There are other contexts in which we rely on this effect. For example, zoos and aquariums argue that by enabling visitors to engage with individual members of a species, those visitors will then support conservation efforts, or be more motivated to take positive action to assist.

Its an interesting concept to explore. Should we be paying more attention to our relations with non-human animals? Should we be thinking about the broader context of these relationships and the deeper implications? Do we treat these relationships with the respect they deserve?

Professor Serpell’s discussion about the way humans think about animals through history is a fascinating one. You can watch the full presentation here.