As a vet, I am often called upon to give my opinion about an animal’s welfare. But what constitutes ‘Good Welfare?’
This is a big question, and one of the big answers is known as the ‘Five Freedoms’:
The Five Freedoms are a cumbersome mix of positives and negatives (one ‘freedom to’ versus four ‘freedom froms’) and are open to subjective interpretation. But they can be applied to assess welfare across all the species. Just for fun, I’m going to assess the welfare of Western, Middle-Class Humans.
Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition….. includes freedom from overfeeding. Imagine that a dog is offered unlimited food, keeps eating and becomes so morbidly obese that its heart and joints can no longer support it. That dog’s owners can be prosecuted. Yet we are many of us in the dog’s position ourselves, in that unsuitable food is pushed our way that we wouldn’t otherwise seek. Food manufacturers slip unnecessary sugar into readymeals. We say ‘thankyou’ with chcocolates and ‘happy birthday’ with cake. If we buy a newspaper from WH Smiths, we are offered a cut price Galaxy Bar. Unsurprisingly, illnesses linked to poor diet are becoming increasingly common in our society.
Freedom from Discomfort…. may be the easiest. We can open windows if we feel hot, or we can change our clothes. We can wriggle if our bums get numb, or we can find a comfortable seat. Work environments might be problematic but the law will intervene when this is severe.
Yet some people choose to go out wearing stilhettoes; others pluck their eyebows or have tattoos. Come to think of it, there are hundreds of tiny examples of our cultural values winning over this welfare requirement; some involve less comfort than others.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease…. Good old NHS. They put a lot of money and effort into keeping me fit to work. But I do worry for old people in Britain. Obviously we can’t just put terminal or unhappy geriatric cases to sleep (as is sometimes done for animals), so we need to properly look after our old and terminally ill.
And at the younger end of society, some teenaged girls are undergoing Female Genital Mutilation. Yes; even in the year 2014.
Freedom to display natural behaviour…. For example, dairy cows need to lie around chewing the cud with their friends. It is also natrual behaviour for a cow to breastfeed her young, but the dairy industry works on the basis that she doesn’t (we take the milk instead and the calf later becomes veal). This separation of Mummy and Baby leads to a breach of freedom from distress….. In order to reduce this, researchers have discovered that separating calf and cow about six hours after the birth (as opposed to immediately or at twenty hours, for example) is the least stressful approach for both parties.
But enough of cows’ natural behaviour: what is ours? Our bodies have evolved upright skeletons for striding around and haven’t had much time to evolve any differently since the invention of the motor-car. So I conclude that exercise is our natural behaviour. Yet our motivation for exercise is often low. It rarely comes into our daily lives and is hard to fit into a working week.
We have also evolved language: an important natural behaviour is conversation. More people live alone than ever before. Does onscreen communication meet their need?
Freedom from fear and distress……. To put this in perspective, I have not been displaced by bombing in Gaza. My baby calf hasn’t just been taken away. Some idiot isn’t walking a predator through my home without a lead.
But work is stressful; I, like many others, have chosen a stressful job. I wasn’t putting my own welfare first when I did that. And not all stressors are selected. We in our society have to think about tax bills, mortgages, relations with the neighbours, car maintainance, house maintainance, education…. And of course, sometimes we fail to cope.
Here is Donald Bloom’s definition of animal welfare:
The state of an animal relating to its ability to cope with its environment
I don’t know who Donald Bloom is, but for me, this defines our welfare better than the Big Five. If one can cope with the small discomfort of a stilhetto, then it should not be a welfare issue. But surely the rise of Type 2 diabetes is a reflection of our being unable to cope with modern diets and exercise patterns? The rise of mental illness a sign that our brains are being overstimulated, perhaps?
If we were animals, our owners would be being criticised already for the way they keep us. But we are humans, so we need to realise the need to collectively look after ourselves and each other.