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Making sense of sentience and animal welfare

Mick Keogh - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Opponents of livestock farming, and especially intensive livestock farming, advance a number of different arguments to support the notion that most forms of livestock farming should be opposed by anyone who is guided by ethics or morals. One frequently used argument is that farm animals are sentient beings with the ability to feel pain and to experience emotions, and that any form of livestock production system that either causes pain or imposes a change from 'natural'  animal behavior (having a negative emotional impact of the animal) therefore cannot be justified.

The Animal welfare group "Voiceless" is one group that has argued that animal sentience is a reason that factory farming should not be allowed, presumably based on the belief that all forms of factory farming either causes pain to animals, or has a negative emotional impact on them. However, closer consideration of the arguments that are used by Voiceless and others in relation to these issues highlights that there are some major flaws in the logic being applied.

Dealing firstly with the question of animals' experience of pain, no farmers would ever argue that animals do not feel pain. This is self-evident to anyone who has ever spent time with animals. The dilemma farmers regularly face, however, is how animals should be managed to minimise pain or the risk of pain, given that animals in pain are significantly less productive. 

Mulesing of sheep to prevent flystrike is an example of farmers having to make a judgement about whether the temporary pain of mulesing can be justified based on the fact that it is an effective means of preventing flystrike, which causes sheep intensive pain and can quickly kill them, if it is left untreated. Flystrike is a particular challenge in the case of sheep being run under extensive pasture-based production systems, which Voiceless argues is preferred on the basis that sheep are sentient animals.  The alternative, where sheep are housed indoors, dramatically reduces the risk of flystrike, but would presumably be considered to have negative emotional impact on the animal because it prevents them expressing 'natural' behaviors.

This immediately highlights the dilemma inherent in the sentience argument. It is not possible for animals to live a life completely free of pain - just as it is impossible for humans to live a life completely free of pain. Hence the issue of pain becomes a value judgement. The question faced by parents  - "is the temporary pain of a baby's vaccination justifiable as a means of preventing polio?"  is not dissimilar to the question faced by sheep farmers - "is the temporary pain of mulesing justifiable as a means of preventing flystrike?".  The fact that both humans and farm animals are sentient beings does not change the fact that the answer to these questions is invariably a value judgement about alternatives that both involve some experience of pain. 

The dilemmas faced by farmers in making management decisions also extends to judgments about the relative merits of intensive livestock production systems. The challenges faced by pig farmers provide a relevant example. If a sow which has recently given birth to piglets is left unrestrained in a free-range environment, the mortality rate of the piglets can easily be 10%, and can exceed 25% during periods of bad weather. If the sow is confined for a period immediately after giving birth in a farrowing crate in an indoor environment, the mortality rate of the piglets drops dramatically - virtually to zero. 

Again, a farmer is faced with a value judgement about the relative impact of confinement on the sow as a trade off against the value of the life of some of her piglets. The critical question is "is the negative impact of even a short period of confinement for a sow outweighed by the much higher survival rate of her piglets?"

What makes these decisions even more complex, however, is the need to avoid anthropomorphic judgments about the response of farm animals to intensive livestock production systems. This becomes very evident, for example, in the case of cattle given the choice between pasture or grain feeding, or when chooks are given access to both free-range and barn conditions. In both instances, animals will often choose what appears to be the less desirable situation from a human perspective (the pen or the shed), but which for an animal seeking access to food and freedom from predation may be completely logical. 

These issues were considered in detail in a recent research report released by the Australian Farm Institute. A key point that emerged from that research is that the science of animal welfare is advancing to the extent that it is possible to obtain much more objective measures of the stress experienced by animals, and the impact of different production systems on animal behaviors (and hence the mental state of those animals). What the science is identifying is that anthropomorphic interpretations of animal preferences are not always correct, and also ignore necessary judgments that have to be made about alternative scenarios.

The concept of sentience is really not under question, but the utopian response to the reality of animal sentience that is proposed by many animal rights and animal welfare groups (complete freedom from pain or stress) is one that is not even possible for humans, let alone animals. Real improvements in the welfare of farmed animals will only be achieved with a much broader consideration of the science, and the necessary tradeoffs that farmers are regularly required to make.

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