Croney: Animal welfare is an emotional issue
The slide depicted two photos. One was of caged laying hens, and the other was a small birdcage containing two parrots. The message was obvious – why do many members of the public oppose the quality of life of these laying hens, but see no problem with the quality of life of these parrots?
Candace Croney, associate professor of animal behavior and well-being in the Department of Animal Sciences at Purdue University, spoke to livestock producers about the role ethics play in current farm animal welfare debates.
As Croney discussed the slide depicting the birds, she addressed the problems regarding animal welfare.
Top of the mind
“Looking at these two photos, many people see no problem with the level of inconsistency in their thought process,” she said. “People don’t like to look at what they are doing in their own backyard. It is much easier to tell someone else how they should be doing things. When we think about animal welfare, everyone has a different idea of what that means.”
Livestock producers and consumers agree they want food that is safe, palatable, affordable and accessible. However, some consumers question the methods by which they get their food. This makes a huge division between rural and urban-surburban people on animal welfare and the need to regulate it.
“Animal welfare is not a ‘top of the mind’ issue,” Croney said. “Most people do not wake up in the morning and their first thought is animal welfare.”
“However, when negative things happen or we have a negative story in the media regarding animal welfare, people’s attention becomes quickly drawn to the issue. They start to think about it, and they change their personal behavior,” she said.
“Everyone agrees it is our moral obligation to do right for the animals under our care,” Croney continued. “But, what does it mean to ‘do right’ by our animals? This has been a big debate that has animal rights activists tapping into the public and trying to force them to form an opinion on these issues.”
“They are also using their influence to impact policy regarding animal welfare,” she said.
Individuals view animal welfare differently.
For many, it is providing good animal husbandry and taking care of the physical needs of animals.
However, others feel the biological and behavioral needs of the animal should also be considered.
“To farmers, animal welfare means providing food, water and shelter,” Croney said. “Consumers know farmers are already doing these things, so they would also like to see animals living a natural life and having a quick death.”
Unfortunately, many consumers think raising animals naturally is like Old McDonald’s Farm, where the animals are all together, and the hens are scratching and pecking in the farmyard, Croney said.
“This isn’t realistic for farmers who are expected to feed a population that is growing exponentially,” she added.
Animal activists are successfully influencing the consumer’s view of animal welfare by appealing to the core values people believe in, like compassion, justice, fairness and freedom, the scientist said.
The activists also pick issues that are easily understood by consumers, like housing, handling and pain, and develop modest appeals for change by adopting high moral ground or using religion.
As an example, Croney referred to farrowing crates to contain sows.
“The activists say, ‘Can’t we give this pig just a little more room to turn around?’ which sounds completely reasonable,” she explained. “The consumer, who lives in the city, doesn’t understand how a sow behaves. They don’t understand it is not that easy. Their opinion is, ‘What’s the problem? Just do it.’”
More people are becoming disconnected with animal agriculture as they move into urban areas. Their contact with animals is through pets, zoos and mass media, Croney said.
“More people are thinking about animals in human terms,” she explained. “We don’t see animal welfare conversations happening in developing countries where people are still struggling to put food on the table. In the United States, the way many people think about their companion animals starts to color how they think food animals should be treated,” she said.
Animal agriculture needs to do a better job reaching consumers through Extension, outreach groups, teachers and education.
“People not connected to the farm are interested in what goes on at the farm,” she said. “Even though producers are busy, they should take the time to open their doors and show others what they do and why and how they do it.”
“It is more expensive to ignore animal welfare issues than to address them,” Croney continued. “If we don’t address these issues, we will get left behind, and we can’t afford that.”
“If there is anything done on the farm that causes pain and can be filmed, be sure we can explain why it is necessary and what is being done to control that pain,” she added. “When something bad happens that has to do with animal welfare, address that it was bad and be sure people understand we don’t do that.”
Producers must take the time to explain what they do to protect the welfare of animals and take the moral high ground in dealing with welfare issues.
Most of all, Croney encouraged producers to be their own voice and not let others, like activists groups, speak for them.
“Make sure people know no one is more concerned about our animals than us, and that we are committed to their health and welfare,” she said.
“Develop a statement committed to animal welfare and put it out there where people will read it,” Croney recommended. “Actions speak louder than words, but words can be very effective when people don’t know us or what we do.”
Responding to concerns
“Many times, agriculture’s response on housing issues is, ‘change isn’t really necessary, and then we go on to respond with food safety, nutrition, affordability, food access and sometimes environmental stewardship explanations that don’t really address the question at hand,” Candace Croney, associate professor of animal behavior and well-being in the Department of Animal Sciences at Purdue University, stated. “We are being challenged on ‘animal’ welfare and responding with food safety, which just upsets the consumer.”
In addressing issues, she noted that producers must be up-front, honest and directly answer the question. Responding with answers related to other aspects of production is frustrating for consumers.
“We need to address each issue instead of being like politicians at a political debate who give canned answers to issues they are challenged about,” she continued. “When we do this, it makes consumers think there is a reason we are not answering the question.”
“Instead, we need to explain to consumers there are people going hungry in this country, and that requires us to maximize the use of land and space to meet people’s food needs,” she continued. “We also need to mention that it requires us to grow and finish a lot of animals quickly.”
“In the case of sows, we need to show the public how they are fed and that they are housed in a way to protect workers and other animals,” she said.
While telling our story, Croney encouraged producers to be quick and to the point.
“The attention span of the American public regarding these issues is about two minutes, so we need to develop a quick and effective way to address these concerns,” she said.