Perceptions of Sheep Welfare Issues In Brazil
These days, the public seems to be more aware of farmed animal welfare issues. In 2016, for example, 94% of European citizens expressed that it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals. In response, many countries have introduced or enhanced their animal protection laws. However, this paper points out that the animal farming industry still prioritizes finances over animal suffering.
In Brazil, a broad law exists to ban animal cruelty, abuse, and maltreatment, regardless of species. However, the law may be interpreted differently by authorities, farmers, citizens, and other stakeholders depending on the context. For example, guidelines for agricultural activities condone painful practices such as killing male chicks and performing painful procedures without anesthesia, even though this would generally be considered animal maltreatment.
According to the authors of this study, consumers generally find animal welfare to be more important than farmers. Unfortunately, farmers frequently find trade-offs between economic interests and animal welfare to appease the public. In this study, the authors set out to explore precisely how much perceptions about farmed sheep welfare differ between farmers and consumers in Southern Brazil. They surveyed 56 farmers and 209 citizens about general sheep welfare and specific practices that happen to sheep on farms.
What they found was that the understanding of several types of animal maltreatment, such as failure to ensure a sheep’s basic needs are met and aggression or physical abuse towards sheep, was similar in both groups. However, there were significant differences, too. Consumers were, for example, more sensitive than farmers about three welfare issues:
- Starving or “emaciated” sheep
- Tail docking without the use of anesthesia
- Restricting a sheep’s movement
The authors compared the responses to the Brazilian Protocol for Expert Report on Animal Welfare (PERAW), which are national guidelines used to help people identify cruelty against animals. PERAW is often used to prosecute animal crimes, although it’s typically limited to cats, dogs, and horses. Regarding the above three welfare issues, the citizens’ perceptions about sheep maltreatment were more closely aligned with the PERAW than the farmers’ perceptions. This raises concerns about the capacity of farmers to adequately judge and ensure animal welfare.
Furthermore, around 72% of consumers believed that animal maltreatment occurs in sheep farming, while around a third of farmers were sure of it. Most citizens also stated that they would not purchase products from farms that engage in animal maltreatment, citing concerns about the animals and not wanting to support harmful companies as the two main reasons. Interestingly, most respondents (including farmers and consumers) weren’t aware of Brazilian laws regarding animal protection, although consumers were slightly more familiar than farmers.
In an attempt to explain the apparent differences, the researchers suggest that farmers are desensitized to some sheep emotions and inner experiences. They argue that fear is often seen as a normal reaction to many on-farm procedures. Furthermore, most farmers in the study described painful procedures like castration and tail docking as usual practice, carried out without anesthetic use. Previous research also shows that the general public typically attributes more importance to pain and fear than industry insiders.
However, the finding that most farmers performed tail docking without anesthesia and that almost half considered it to be animal maltreatment suggests widespread cognitive dissonance in the Brazilian farming sector — not to mention that docking sheep tails without anesthesia is illegal according to Brazilian law. Considering half of the farmers believed that animal maltreatment takes place in sheep farming, it raises major concerns for humane animal stewardship. This is further supported by the fact that most respondents, farmers in particular, were not aware of Brazil’s relevant animal protection legislation, highlighting the vulnerability of farmed animals.
The results may also suggest welfare issues among the farmers themselves. A previous study from Denmark found that there might be a link between animal neglect and social problems. Specifically, Danish farmers at highest risk of being convicted for animal neglect were also more likely to be troubled by both economic and mental health problems. Similarly, there are reports showing that economic hardships can result in a greater willingness to tolerate unethical actions among farmers.
This research reveals a major disconnect between how different stakeholders can perceive farmed animal welfare issues. It also highlights the importance of educating all stakeholders about animal protection legislation. The public can call for government intervention for farmed animals if the laws set in place aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, but this can only happen when people are informed about the laws and their limitations. Animal advocates should also focus on bridging the gap between farmers and consumers to make sure their animal welfare perceptions (and their understanding of the farmers’ experiences) are aligned. This is especially important when it comes to addressing urgent issues, such as preventing painful procedures and other extreme forms of cruelty.