Citizens and Animal Welfare: Methods, Findings and Policy Implications

Last Thursday (20th of May) I participated in an interesting workshop about citizens and animal welfare.  The workshop was organized at Aarhus University in Denmark and dealt with questions like: Whose opinion on animal welfare counts? How can one integrate the different perspectives of,  for example farmers, citizens, (animal) scientists and the government? We already know that citizens consider animals’ ‘naturalness’ a very important feature of ‘good animal welfare’. But what is naturalness exactly? Can you implement this in animal farming systems? Can you measure it? And what if the choice for naturalness is in conflict with other aspects, such as animal health? How do citizens make trade-offs between such dilemmas in animal farming? And how should one involve citizens in animal welfare research? Via surveys, farm visits, consensus conferences or are there other ways to be explored? To be short, although much research has already been done on animal welfare over the last decade, there are still many questions surrounding the animal welfare debate when it comes to citizens’ participation and involvement.

Raising new questions is of course a characteristic of research: finishing a research can give you the feeling that you answered some questions, but in the end it will always result in more questions. That’s what keeps us going. What in addition keeps me going, is the cooperation and discussion with other researchers in the world. Particularly after doing a PhD for six years on my own, it is really nice to exchange ideas and cooperate with other researchers in this field, like Jan Tind Sørensen of the Department of Animal Health and Bioscience and Peter Sandøe of the Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment . During my PhD I often had the feeling I was one of the very few researchers who is interested in public perceptions of animal farming. But recently, the importance of the public opinion of animal farming is more and more acknowledged, also in the field Animal Science, of which this workshop was a good example.

3 thoughts on “Citizens and Animal Welfare: Methods, Findings and Policy Implications

  1. Hi Birgit,
    Some of us in the Equine Research Network (EqRN) are wrestling with similar questions. What is horse welfare? Nora Schuurman of the Uni of East Finland has done work looking at representations of horse welfare in advertisements in equine mags. And it raises interesting conflicts. For example, do horses like to be dirty? Judging from their behaviour in fields and streams it would certainly seem so. But cleanliness is paired with health, for their owners. There are lots of other examples, too, such as the need for euthanasia to reduce suffering conflicting with the wish not to harm horses.

    The trouble is, what is welfare? I’m sure this is a question you and your colleagues were wrestling with in Aarhus. Is it lack of disease? Is it fitness? Where does ‘happiness’ come in? Animal ethologists will tell you horses are ‘happy’ when they are satisfying their instinctual drives. But they resist the notion that horses feel ’emotions’. So is happiness really a part of animal welfare?

    Looking at this through an equine lens is useful because horses are kept (mostly) for non-food purposes. They are there to be ridden, competed, jumped, etc. All of which requires something riders often call ‘partnership’. And all of which are activities which horses wouldn’t do on their own — at least not in the way it is done when their human partners are involved. Which means the horses’ worlds are very anthropocentrically constructed. This raises issues about ‘naturalness’, as in ‘natural for who?’.

    Which brings me back to animal welfare. So many constructions of animal welfare are (necessarily) human-constructed and reflect human values, not necessarily equine values (if we can say that). We even find a lot of this in the ‘Horse Whisperer’ communities, and even if putting the rider right might help the horse, does the horse really think it’s name (Charmy) is wrong and wants to be called ‘Tinkerbelle’? (this is a real example….). How much, then, does animal welfare need to be about animals, and not humans? And can it ever be separated from human ideas of welfare?

    Which is why, as you say above, Brigit, Welfare is such an interesting issue!

    For more on the Equine Research Network, you can look at the website


  2. Dear Rhys,

    Nice to hear from you and about the equine research.
    Yes, indeed we are struggling with similar questions.
    Indeed, the purpose of the animal most likely influences the conception of ‘good animal welfare’ ( food production, recration, sports, affection, etc).

    Another interesting question is the one about ‘happiness’. What is a happy pig, horse or dog? The paper of Peter Sandøe, entitled ‘Happy pigs are dirgy’, shares some interesting ideas in this respect.

    The concept of ‘naturalness’ is more and more acknowledged and studied, but also under debate, as it entails many different meanings.
    So, there’s enough research still to be done

  3. Pingback: “Wat is een goed leven voor dieren?” « Rural Sociology Group Wageningen (Weblog)

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