Dairy Excel: What if we applied animal welfare freedoms to human actions?

I will admit it upfront: I am missing most of the cold winter this year, as I am traveling through Australia.

Now before you get too offended and complain that I am sunbathing Down Under at the expense of Ohio’s taxpayers, I should add that my Australian trip is in the company of college students, hormone-raging students, 24/7 type students, “can I drown a couple of them” type students… How did I get myself into this predicament? It’s a big, wide world, Toto!

World view

There is no question that the world has shrunk in my lifetime. Destinations that use to take days if not weeks to reach can now be traveled in a day or two — mind you in a very cramped space and possibly without one’s luggage at arrival.

More importantly for our agriculture students at OSU, agricultural goods are now traded all over the world, and it is important for them to have an understanding on how this is done.

The U.S. is a competitive supplier of grains, oilseeds, and animal products to the world markets. So nearly 10 years ago, we realized that if we were to provide full training opportunities to our animal sciences majors, we would have to offer opportunities to go abroad and study how food from animals moved around the globe.

Australia was found to be a highly desirable destination due to its visible presence in the world’s food export market, its common language, plus an outstanding research program in animal welfare at the University of Melbourne.

Animal welfare

After eight years of sitting through hours of lectures and experimentation on animal welfare issues I thought that it was time to share some of my thinking in this column.

People who study animal welfare are generally proponents of the “five freedoms.” This doctrine states that to experience good welfare an animal should be free from:

• Injury, disease and pain

• Fear and stress

• Physical discomfort

• Hunger and thirst

• Should be free to express normal behavior

One problem with animals is that, unlike teenagers, they don’t talk back. For ethologists (those who study animal behavior), these five freedoms are self-evident.

I challenge this dogma. If it was so, then the five freedoms should apply to humans as well.

Injury, disease and pain. Football players and other athletes are often exposed to injuries and pain; should we ban football? Human birthing is (I am told) quite painful; should we prohibit human procreation? Breast feeding is frequently accompanied with episodes of mastitis (infection of the mammary gland); should we prohibit mothers from breast feeding?

Fear and stress

Roller coasters induce a very intense fear in most people; should they be banned? And what should we do with scary movies?

If stress is so bad why do 10,000 people fight for the privilege of entering the Boston marathon each year, an activity that by any physiological measurement is highly stressful to the human body?

Physical discomfort

If physical discomfort is so bad, why do so many humans go on long wilderness hikes? Why do so many people love deer hunting. Sitting half-frozen in a deer stand on a cold November morning is highly uncomfortable, but should it be banned on the basis of human welfare?

Hunger and thirst

Should we let our kids eat anything whenever they are “hungry”? Should we let pregnant sows eat themselves to death?

Should be free to express normal behavior. Beyond the issue of what is “normal” behavior in domestic animals, we routinely force humans to behave contrary to what should be normal.

Reproduction is a normal behavior in humans (most of us do reproduce). Thus, should we let teenagers have a go at it under the premise that it is “normal.” Should we let kids decide whether they should go to school or not? Should we allow dog fights because fighting among dogs is a normal behavior in wild dogs?

The point is that defining what is best for an animal is not as simple as what most people think.

As we will progressively be facing new regulations in Ohio regarding the care of the animals that we are entrusted with, we better be vigilant and not let too many “self-evidences” determine what is best. This is an area where science can assist us by providing much needed facts.

About the Author

Normand St-Pierre is an Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460. More Stories by Normand St-Pierre

3 Comments

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    I can only hope that Mr. St-Pierre is being facetious but apparently not. Could anyone really be so obtuse to not realize the inappropriateness of the analogies he gives? Farmed animals are subjected to the treatment they receive without their consent, whereas the human activities St-Pierre lists are voluntary ones. A closer analogy would be that of the treatment of prisoners or companion animals. Any sentient being who is kept captive, such as farmed animals are, deserves the so-called Five Freedoms as the very bare minimum of responsible care-giving. Astoundingly, some people are too churlish to be willing to acknowledge even that.

  2. Normand St-Pierre says:

    Obtuse… I have been called many things, but “obtuse” is a first, although it is well deserved at times. But not in this instance. I didn’t miss the point that the human activities used in my column are done (at least most of them) voluntarily by humans. This was the point. The fact is that many (if not most) humans decide NOT to use the five freedoms when trying to maximize their welfare. Consequently, the average welfare of the human species would be reduced if we were to enforce the ‘Five Freedoms’ on humans. If the application of the Five Freedoms does not work when applied to humans, why would someone claim that they should be the (bases) for minimum care-giving of animals. The fact is that many things that initially were thought as self-evident have been frequently found to be incorrect. The scientific study of animal behavior and animal welfare has revealed quite a few already. It is important that we continue studying animals in a scientific manner to best address animal welfare issues. As I pointed out in my column, “defining what is best for an animal is not as simple as what most people think”.

    As for being churlish… you are in full agreement with my son… when he was 14.

  3. Mary Finelli says:

    Wrong, again. Most people, with the exception of masochists, DO strive to have the Five Freedoms met for themselves. They may be willing to risk not optimizing some of them in certain, usually very short-term instances, but that is by their own choice. It’s not something forced on them, as is the case for farmed animals. It’s pathetic if you can’t grasp such an immense difference. Consider, for example, going on a voluntary fast versus being starved by another. Please consider enrolling in a philosophy 101 class. It’s actually a very plain matter of common sense but that seems to elude you.

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