“What is a good life for animals?”

Last week 65 students Animal Science have been dealing with this question during the course ‘Animal Science in Society’ (RSO 11303). We used David Fraser’s book ‘Understanding Animal Welfare. The Science in its Cultural Context’ (2008) as guidance. David Fraser describes three concepts for animal welfare, i.e. what entails  ‘a good life for animals’ : a) a healthy life, b) a natural life, c) a happy life. The three concepts are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. Moreover, they often don’t go together, they are in conflict.

In groups of 6 students per group, the students worked on this question to get familiar with the concepts and to learn to apply these. Each group answered the question for a specific animal in a specific environment. “What is a good life for…?” …a dairy cow at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at home? …a rat at a laboratory? …an elephant in a circus? …fattening pig at a commercial farm? …a rabbit at a farm for meat production? …a fish in a fishbowl? …a laying hen at a commercial farm? …a mink at a farm for fur production? …a cat at home?

The students had to present their answers in a creative way. Well, one can leave that up to Animal Science students! You-tube movies about ‘Youp van ‘t Hek’s ‘Flappie’’, chips-eating cats, home-made movies about the ideal life for laying hens, a performance with students as rabbits and one group even designed a completely new mink production system with mink welfare as departure point!

The presentations as well as the discussions showed that the answer to this question is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Instead, the answers vary according to the animal species and their functionality. The functionality of the animal refers to the function the animal has for humans, for example food production, company, aesthetics, entertainment and testing medication. In some situations, the animal’s function harms its welfare so much, that the function itself is being questioned.  For example, a large majority of the students held the opinion that elephants should not be kept in circuses. In their opinion, the elephants’ welfare is harmed too much – as they are kept in a very unnatural environment – in comparison to the benefit for humans – entertainment. However, students were less unanimous when it comes to use of animals for food production, for example about the welfare of fattening pigs. There was one group of students who held the opinion that the welfare of fattening pigs was fine as long as the pigs were healthy. In their eyes, conventional production systems did not harm pig welfare. On the other hand, there was a group of students who considered conventional production systems too ‘unnatural’. They preferred organic farming systems which give space to more ‘naturalness’ and ‘happy pigs’.

The latter example also illustrates that in addition to the animal’s functionality, personal experiences, values and convictions play a role when defining a good life for animals. Hence, the answer to this question also varies among (groups of) people. Finally, the definition of animal welfare varies according to the social and cultural context in which it is defined and used.

Thanks to the original and enthusiastic input of the students, it was a creative and interesting closure of a week about animal welfare, in which the students could get familiar with present-day social and scientific questions (see former blog) about animal welfare!