Thursday, December 3, 2015

What is animal welfare? Three things I learned from Professor John Webster

Professor John Webster, known as the "father of the five freedoms", briefly met Phil.

According to Professor John Webster, author of the fivefreedoms, animal welfare really is two things:
  1. Our perceptions relating to our treatment of animals;
  2. Animals’ perceptions of their own physical state – animal welfare as perceived by the animal.

1 and 2 are not necessarily the same, but our job is to ensure they’re as close as possible.

We can teach welfare and ethics all we like, but Professor Webster offers this 
“Our ethical arguments are of no concern to animals: it is what we do that counts.”
Professor Webster is visiting Sydney to launch the Onewelfare teaching portal, designed so that the eight veterinary schools in Australia and New Zealand (Murdoch, Adelaide, Melbourne, Charles Sturt, Sydney, James Cook, Queensland and Massey) have access to a high quality, sharedcurriculum.

It has been an amazing experience meeting Professor Webster whose career began in the middle of last century when animal welfare science was really new on the scene. It was the appalling conditions that veal calves were kept in that inspired his work.

Working in the field over several decades, and seeing so much change, has given him incredible insights to share, so I’ve highlighted a couple of things I learned here.
  • Science isn’t value free – nor should we expect it to be. “We need science to improve our understanding of the physical and emotional factors that determine the welfare of sentient animals,” he said. “But science will never and never should be the sole foundation for our attitudes and actions towards animals in our dominion. Governments cannot kid themselves that they are basing their conclusions [about animal welfare] on scientific evidence because they can’t. The responsibility of the animal welfare scientist is not just to seek the truth but also to guide public opinion towards solutions that animals themselves would favour.”
  • “The free market is the most powerful force at the moment driving animal welfare.” Professor Webster credits the free market, not legislation or science, for most animal welfare improvements. During a public lecture he showed an image of battery hens in cages. “Images like this,” he said, “do more to influence public opinion than 100 scientific papers about animal welfare.”
  • Veterinarians need to be courageous about animal welfare. Professor Webster argues that we can use our professional skills to assess welfare, recognise suffering in a sentient animal or populations of animals, and to do something about it (i.e. identify and remedy failures of provision). We need, he argued, humanity in order to respect the needs of animals and their owners, and courage, in order to act according to that which is right, not simply that which is regulated.

Professor Webster’s latest book, Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in SustainableAgriculture, argues that there are constructive solutions to our current depletion of natural resources and environmental destruction, and there is scope to improve the lives of farm animals.