Alick Simmons is a veterinarian, naturalist and photographer. After a period in private practice, he followed a 35-year career as a Government veterinarian, latterly as the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer. Alick’s lifelong passion is wildlife; he volunteers for the RSPB and NE in Somerset, is chair of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, a member of the Wild Animal Welfare Committee and a trustee of Dorset Wildlife Trust. A particular interest of his is the ethics of wildlife management and welfare. He is pictured above on the People’s Walk for Wildlife in September 2018.
In the first post in this series, I argued that we, as a society, with exceptions, are involved in the exploitation of animals. In this second post I set out the reasons why we need to do it better taking account of their sentience and needs.
People’s view about animals sit along a continuum from one extreme to another. At one end, there are those that believe any and all animal exploitation is wrong since it will inevitably cause the animal to suffer at some stage. We’ll come back to that view. At the other extreme, there are those that believe that animals are not sentient and can’t suffer. Those views are not widely held but it is worth understanding the thinking behind it. Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. Of course, because it is subjective, you cannot be certain an animal is suffering, frightened or in pain. For example, pain is experienced only by the subject. If I fall and break my leg in front of you, I may scream and writhe and you might conclude, rightly, that I am in pain. But you don’t feel my pain. You have simply extrapolated from your experience of pain, seen how I have behaved and concluded, ‘he’s in pain’. Making that assumption is the basis of empathy and compassion in society. It’s no different with animals.
A dog with a broken leg might limp and howl. Although we can never be certain, for the same reason that you would, I hope, empathise with me if I broke a leg, most people would conclude the dog was in pain and want to relieve its suffering. It wasn’t always that way. The 17th century philosopher, Descartes, believed that animals were automata. If a dog struggles and howls in response to an injury, then this is to protect the body from damage, but the ability for it to suffer is absent. This had a profound effect on people’s attitude to animals and it wasn’t until the 19th century with increasing knowledge and enlightenment, the first laws to protect animals from beating and neglect, and from the cruelest experimental practice were enacted.
At the other end of the continuum is an absolutist position which has it that any and all exploitation is wrong. It holds that in an environment which we share with animals, all interactions and interventions between animals and people should be avoided. Of course, this includes veganism and an avoidance of all animal products including leather, down clothing and the new banknotes as well as meat and dairy products. For me, it is too rigid a position as it takes no account of the enormous differences between the best and worst of animal care. I would rather make a choice about what I eat from a wider appreciation of how animals are kept, cared for and killed. Similarly, the absolutist would have us keeping no pets. I am really not comfortable with that. I gain a great deal of pleasure from my cats and, subjectively, I think they gain pleasure from me.
I believe that most people fall somewhere between these extremes. However, if we conclude that society benefits from some animal exploitation, we had better be clear about what we are prepared to accept and how we do it.
Current legislation in the UK provides general protection through a duty of care while more specific and detailed legislation covers farm, research and other animals. That in itself might be enough to satisfy many people but while the law provides basic protection, with few exceptions, for good reason it does not enter into the ethics of animal exploitation. Animal law is also shot through with anomalies, compromise and inconsistency reflecting, in part, history, the inevitable compromise of law making and the different purposes to which the animal are put. Putting it bluntly, there is no point in looking to animal law to solve your dilemmas, if you have them: It is up to individuals to make those choices.
To illustrate the problem, consider these examples:
- Some inconsistencies are historical, from a time when evidence was scant and attitudes were different. For example, it is illegal to dock the tail of cattle and horses but legal to dock those of pigs (in some cases) and lambs. There is enough evidence from these species’ anatomy and physiology to convince me that their sentience and capacity to suffer is similar. So why are they treated differently? It’s unclear, but it is probably something to do with differences in way people perceive animals and their capacity to suffer.
- Some seem to arise from an inconsistency in how we treat animals in different circumstances: The brown rat is commonly kept as a pet, used widely as a laboratory animal and exists commonly in the wild. There’s no reason to believe that the rat’s ability to suffer is any different in these different circumstances. Yet the pet rat is cosseted and petted (and is frequently obese), the laboratory rat exists in one of the most highly regulated environments anywhere where the wild rat runs the risk of being poisoned and dying slowly from hypothermia, or being inefficiently and incompetently trapped using unregulated and unsupervised equipment. As a society we seem to accept these discrepancies. I hope I am not the only one who find these differences disturbing.
- Some gaps in animal protection appear simply because the law hasn’t kept up with the science. For example, there is ample evidence that decapods (lobsters, crabs, etc) are sentient and quickly learn to avoid an unpleasant or aversive stimulus. However, in the UK, decapods are excluded from the general animal protection law allowing them to be boiled alive.
- In debates about animal welfare wildlife are often left out. Perhaps it is because we don’t see much wildlife unless we go out of our way and because few of us eat much game that the welfare of wildlife doesn’t get much discussion in comparison to farm animals and pets. Wildlife occupies a peculiar position mainly because of the highly polarised attitudes between those that exploit the wildlife for food and commercial gain and those that seek to protect them. Despite the lack of attention, the welfare of wildlife is often poor with arbitrary killing, trapping and poisoning much of which goes on clandestinely and with little accountability.
- Fish have been similarly neglected perhaps because of their relatively alien environment and the difficulty we have in empathy with animals which are so very physically different from ourselves. However, the body of evidence that fish feel pain is large and increasing. It doesn’t take much thought to raise doubts about fish welfare when one considers the methods of recreational anglers and commercial fishermen which rely on, respectively, hooks to catch the fish and suffocation to kill landed fish.
Of course, farm animals represent the largest number of animals we exploit and concern about their welfare (along with concerns about the environmental impact) is one of the main reasons for adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, the differences between the best and worst of animal productions systems, both in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact, are so great that it is simplistic to conclude that all meat eating and using animal products is wrong. There are systems of agriculture, particularly those for grazing animals, which respect the environment and, in some cases, enhance biodiversity and abundance, where the animals are able to display most of their behavioural repertoire. On the other hand, there are systems which, by design and practice, stifle much of the normal pattern of behaviour and provide a pretty miserable life for their occupants. A lack of publicly available information about these systems and their food outputs, combined with a lack of clarity about the environmental impacts of the different systems is a significant impediment preventing you, as a consumer, making ethical decisions about animal exploitation.
It gets more difficult when we consider animal research. Few of us, I believe, would defend the use of animals to research the safety of cosmetics. But the absolutist, abolitionist view seems take no account of lives that might be saved from increased scientific knowledge. Much of the significant advances in medicine including vaccine technology, cancer treatment, organ transplantation and cardiac medicine would not have been possible without using animals at some stage. Increasingly there are alternatives like cell culture but complex problems require complex solutions so researching heart disease, for example, in most cases involves animals. A utilitarian argument supports some but not all animal experimentation in that scientific research that advances medical knowledge is worth the exploitation of the minimum number of animals provided it is carefully regulated.
In conclusion, there are
inconsistencies and anomalies in the way we treat animals. There are also fundamental differences between the best and
worst of livestock farming with some of the worst conditions being a function
of the system of husbandry. Does that
matter? It does to me. But despite being what some people might
describe as an insider, I still find it difficult to make decisions because of
a lack of information and apparently contradictory advice. More, better information is needed. I will explore this more in the next post.
 The doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.