Why Do We Care About Animal Welfare?

Every so often, usually late at night or early in the morning, when I’m on a farm and I’m cold and miserable, I wonder why we care about animal welfare.

After all, they’re not human. Why do we worry about their lives? Why do we want them to have the freedom from pain, freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear, or the freedom to behave in a natural way?

And we clearly do care about animal welfare. The RSPCA was the 12th most popular UK charity in 2012, if you judge by donations. They surpassed the British Heart Foundation, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Barnardo’s, one of my personal favourite charities. Now, financial spending is a relatively poor way to judge how much a community cares about something (all you need is a few people with big purses and you can earn quite a lot of money without much support at all *insert joke about your least favourite political party*). So how can we appropriately gauge the public’s interest in animal welfare?

Historically, animal welfare legislation in the UK started with the passions of one or two people. In 1822 an MP succeeded in having  the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ passed by the House of Commons. Somewhat predictably, the wording quickly needed amending to make sure people realised when they said ‘cattle’ they also meant bulls. Politics.co.uk has an interesting history of animal welfare legislation. Note how this MP went on to form the RSPCA (after receiving Queen Vic’s patronage).

More recently, many people talk about Ruth Harrison’s ‘Animal Machines’ opening their eyes to how our food is produced. Here we begin to see something more tangible. The change in consumer practices shows that consumers are willing to pay for animal welfare (Verbeke & Viaene, 2000) and that consumer choice is affected by many different things: the information they receive on animal welfare, the taste of a product (Napolitano et al 2008), how they feel about their own health and, importantly, because they place a value on animal welfare (Blokhuis et al 2003).

This concern for animal welfare therefore must exist in society, enough to change our consumer habits in measurable ways, but why?

We have a bond with animals which forms at some point in our lives. Think about yourself. When did you first realise you cared about animal welfare? Was it when the family dog sat beside you at the dinner table and gave you big, sad eyes because it wasn’t getting any food and your dinner smelled so good? And you realised that this dog, your playmate, your friend, wanted something? Think how difficult a concept that is for a child to grasp, that something other than themselves wants something. Think how amazing it is that they can grasp this about a ‘something’ which can’t even speak, or share our facial expressions.

In 2003, Melson wrote a paper about the relationship between child development and the human-animal bond. It opens with three quotes demonstrating the capacity have for caring, but also their capacity for cruelty. It’s a fascinating paper and I think it’s a strong argument for more research into this area. She talks about research that shows children with pets show more informed reasoning of the natural world, the social support children get from their pets, and most importantly – how it teaches them to care.

We’ve all heard our parents say it “Getting a dog/cat/pony/dragon is a big responsibility, are you sure you’re ready for it?” Most likely our parents knew full well they would be the one getting up in the mornings. And of course it’s usually the parents who make the final decision, regardless of how responsible the children are. Still this phrase is somewhat of a right of passage, a declaration that pet-owning is a responsibility. We accept there is a moral duty to owning a pet.

Yes there are some people who don’t care about animal welfare. But there are some people who don’t care about human welfare either. In fact, the relationship between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans might be the key to explaining why we care about animal welfare.

Daly & Morton (2008) asked a group of students how they felt about watching animals being killed. Unsurprisingly they were discomforted by it, but those who were more empathetic (including women, as they tend to score higher on empathy scores), and those who were more likely to relate to fictional characters, liked it least. The question of ‘why are we an empathic species?’ is  a slightly different topic, fascinating, but for another post. The point here is that empathy allows us to care about animal welfare.

Arluke et al (1999) used the term ‘graduate’ to describe how people move from committing animal cruelty to violent crime, because animal cruelty is a form of training. Lacking the empathy to appreciate how hurting an animal is wrong is a fairly good indicator of whether someone will go on to hurt people (although Arluke et al are quick to point, and I should be too, that animal cruelty does not always lead to violent crime). Most horrible of all, prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes who have been exposed to and sometimes participated in animal abuse as children were also often abused through childhood (Miller & Knutson, 1997).

Sometimes in discussing animal welfare we get very caught up in issues such as animal consciousness, whether animal can feel pain, or to what extent we should be legislating all of this. It’s important sometimes to step back and to question why we care – especially as there’s so little research on it. But it’s equally important to note that all the research we do have shows us that caring about animals is an important part of being human, about growing up human, and about caring for other humans.

So if, over Christmas, you feel a little caught up in all the commercialism and you get to wondering about the size of the turkey on the dinner plate, take heart. You’re only wondering because you’re human. And it’s human to care.

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