Happy, Healthy, & Wise: Insights For Promoting Farmed Animal Welfare
In recent history, public perception of the well-being of non-human animals on farms has become increasingly important in shaping relevant policy. Powerful legislation has come out of this general concern, including the Brambell Report (also known as the “Five Freedoms”), more stringent regulation, and higher standards of assessing the welfare of farmed animals. This perception is driven by many different concerns, including overall health and living conditions. Although these are also shared by many farmers and policymakers, the general public differs in another crucial way: they have a much stronger belief that the animals should experience as “natural” a life as possible. Specifically, members of the public feel that animals should have ample opportunity to behave as closely to how they would in the wild as in captivity. And yet, this preference is often at odds with the others for health and living conditions. Thus, while many people say they want farmed non-human animals to have as “natural” of an existence as can be, faced with conflicting scenarios—for example, cows being kept indoors to reduce their risk of heat stroke—the lay public is often inconsistent.
Research by a team from Scotland sought to study this inconsistency scientifically. In so doing, they attempted to determine how the U.K. public rated the well-being of farmed animals and how this rating varied under different experimental conditions. In the given experimental settings, they teased apart the effects of “overall well-being, physical health, mental health, and productivity” of the animals on how they were perceived broadly. To elaborate even further, they also controlled for characteristics of the individuals in their study along the lines of sociodemographic characteristics, whether they believed non-human animals had any sort of consciousness, and general social norms. In this way, the authors contributed to a clearer understanding of how members of the U.K. public valued “naturalness” in the animals’ lives.
To carry out their study, the researchers administered an online survey through the popular tool Survey Monkey, and recruited volunteers through another service called Prolific. In the survey, they randomly assigned respondents to one of four vignettes describing, respectively, scenarios where the animals were in good health and free to pursue their natural behavior; in good health but not free to be natural; in poor health and free; and finally, in poor health and not free to pursue their natural behavior. Overall, they included 810 of the responses in their study.
At a glance, 93% of people felt positively towards the “High Health-High Behavior” scenario, while 80% felt negatively towards the “Low Health-Low Behavior’ scenario. This isn’t totally surprising, but the nuance emerges in the “Low Health-High Behavior” and “High Health-Low Behavior” vignettes. For the former, 38% felt positively and 43% felt negatively, while for the latter, 58% felt positively and 25% felt negatively.
As described earlier, these are inconsistent with the strong preference that many people have that animals should have the opportunity to behave as naturally as possible. The researchers note that there were several factors that influenced this discrepancy. First, individuals of Asian ethnicity were much less likely than all other groups to prioritize the health of the animals. Likewise, people who believed in non-human animal consciousness placed much more importance on the health of the animals. Next, women were significantly more likely than men to highly rate the opportunity for “naturalness.” People who regularly eat meat rated this naturalness component as less important. Finally, individuals who grew up on farms gave lower ratings for naturalness across the board.
Ultimately, the main takeaway of this study is that members of the public—at least in the U.K.—prioritize the health of non-human farmed animals over the “naturalness” of their lives in assessing welfare. This cuts against traditional thinking and prior research on the topic. There is, however, important nuance in this trend. As the results discussed above show, there is substantial variation in this preference, and so it depends very much on context. With that in mind, this has several important implications for animal rights and welfare advocates. Namely, we must recognize that public support is critical to success in improving the lives and well-being of non-human animals across the world. Thus, understanding how to best get the public on our side is crucial.
The study shows that the best ways of persuading people depend on who they are and where they’re coming from. Additionally, balancing the health and “naturalness” of non-human animals does not have to be a tradeoff. Both can be optimized but “advertised” in different ways and to different groups to get more people on board. Finally, acknowledging this variation and being patient with others as we try to persuade them of a different way of seeing things is necessary to effectively communicate on behalf of the non-human animals whose voice we act as.