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BAWK bawk bawk bawk BAWK – what happened to my air conditioning? April 2, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Animal welfare seems to be a pretty straightforward concept until you try to measure it. How do you figure out whether any particular animal – let’s say, a hen in the egg-production industry – has positive or negative welfare? There are some obvious physical signs of distress you can look for to determine whether she’s in an advanced stage of suffering: broken bones, missing feathers, a lame gait. But in the absence of these markers, how do you know if she’s happy or sad? Is there any way to tell whether a hen busily pecking through grass on pasture is happier than one intently pecking through straw on the concrete floor of an industrial henhouse? To the untrained eye, they are hard to distinguish.

Even to the trained eye, it’s not so easy to tell who’s got the good life. Some of the most sophisticated methods of assessing animal welfare measure the levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in manure. You’d think the more stress hormone, the worse off the animal. However, it turns out that corticosterone levels also rise during activities like mating, which presumably don’t make animals miserable. Another advanced research method is to give an animal various options – in our example above, the option of being inside or outside – and to assume that whatever she chooses is best for her welfare. However, this approach has a variety of problems, starting with the fact that animals, especially domesticated ones who have not been bred for street smarts, don’t necessarily know what’s good for them. Turkeys will stand with their necks outstretched in a rainstorm and choke to death on the water coming down their throats.

 One solution to the problem of measuring animal welfare is simply to give up and find an alternative criterion to judge whether we are treating animals ethically. Bernard Rollin, one of the most prestigious philosophical proponents of ethical treatment, focuses on the telos, or natural purpose, of animals as indicative of their well-being. If the way we raise animals allows them to exercise their natural instincts (if our practices respect the pigness of the pig, in his words) then Rollin would say we are doing right by them. That just assumes that the natural state of an animal is the best one, though, and if we really care about happiness and not just naturalness for its own sake, it would be nice to have a little more evidence that natural = happy. (To be fair to Rollin, he doesn’t reject the endeavor to measure animal welfare outright; he suggests that we supplement the concept of welfare with the notion of telos and use both to decide how to raise farm animals ethically.)

If we’re not willing to defend nature “red in tooth and claw” on its own merits, we have to find some way of bridging the gap between what’s natural and what promotes welfare. Perhaps the way to do it is as follows: recognizing that we cannot be sure that the natural environment is the optimal one for animal welfare, at least we know that by providing them with one (or as close to one as we can get in agriculture) we are not making animals worse off than they would have been without our intervention. The natural environment may not be heaven on earth, but at least we humans aren’t screwing things up.

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Comments»

1. Guillaume - April 2, 2010

I don’t understand the title – how is it related to the article?

Also, it’s a myth that turkeys stare in the rain with open beaks until they drown. Check out http://www.upc-online.org/turkeys/120403notdumb.htm, http://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/turkey-drown.htm or http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/turkey.asp.

Angelique - April 2, 2010

Um, the title was my attempt to wryly mimic a chicken’s possible reaction to being exiled from the comfortable henhouse world into the climatically-unfriendly outdoors. Guess that didn’t come through.
Perhaps the turkey story is apocryphal, but my source is an actual farmer, writing in The American at http://www.american.com/archive/2009/july/the-omnivore2019s-delusion-against-the-agri-intellectuals/. He notes that a fellow farmer lost 4000 turkeys to such an incident. Well, even if it’s not true, there are plenty of other cases of animals willingly opting to reduce their welfare. Lab rats will overeat and get fat if given a wide choice of sweet foods (so will humans). Some cats used to wet food limit their water drinking even when switched to dry food to the point of causing kidney damage. *Examples from John Webster, Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye towards Eden.


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