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Chairman's column: 

A.J. Webster, age 65¾

And so farewell, John Webster.
“Five Freedoms for the Animals!” That was your cry.
A modest number.
But F.D.R. thought four sufficient for his fellow Americans.
So five seems fair.

If this article carries a hint of end-of-term euphoria, it is for good reason. This will be my last column as Chairman of AWSELVA. I shall officially retire from the University of Bristol on July 31st. What this means in effect is that I shall no longer teach and I shall no longer get paid. I shall become a Senior Research Fellow and am committed to research projects for at least the next three years.


Undoubtedly the greatest sense of relief came when I was finally able to hand over to my publisher Animal Welfare II: Limping towards Eden. I should, I suppose, attempt some valedictory words of wisdom after a career that has for the last 30 years directly addressed problems of animal welfare. (I began my first investigations of welfare problems in veal calves in 1974 while at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen). However, this would not, I think, be appropriate, partly because the journey towards the international implementation of better standards of animal welfare has hardly begun but mainly because I am still in the race. Nevertheless, it may be useful to look back on what has been achieved so far.


I was put in the mood for reflection by a visit last week to the Ukraine. My main task was to promote ‘Concepts in Animal Welfare’, a teaching package produced by The University of Bristol in association with WSPA, who met the expenses of the trip.


The Ukrainians are generally acknowledged to be an emotional people, still closely bound to the black earth; the good land that has helped to sustain them through decades of Soviet persecution and centuries before that of being assailed from all quarters. The Ukrainians that I met were not, I guess, typical. Most of my contacts were with students and lecturers at colleges of agriculture and veterinary science. I also met senior members of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, the Minister of Education and individuals committed to a number of disparate animal welfare charities. All expressed a strong concern for bioethics in general and animal welfare in particular. It is however fair to say that this concern lacked focus. Most called for a ban on ‘vivisection’ (never properly defined) for teaching purposes. Some called for sterilisation of feral dogs, others opposed this as an abuse of their Telos. One had produced a CD of gloomy sounding songs telling of animal suffering and illustrated by a picture of Brigitte Bardot embracing a horse with a tear in its eye (the horse, not B.B.). My own talks tended to concentrate on the welfare of farm animals. The response from students and others was intelligent and concerned but I formed the impression that this was all new to them. The welfare of animals kept in intensive farming systems had not been seen as a problem, even though these systems remain the major source of meat and milk, as a legacy from the Soviet era.


The overall picture emerging from these snap-shots recalled the state of animal welfare concern that existed in Britain before Ruth Harrison brought the problem of intensive farming into the public arena in 1964 with her book Animal Machines. Those who expressed concern were filled with a passionate intensity about deliberate acts of cruelty but had given little or no thought to the much more widespread abuse of animal welfare inherent in ‘accepted agricultural practice’. The vast majority of the people (I was assured) were grateful to get food from any source and either gave no thought to farm animal welfare or viewed it as the least of their problems. These impressions serve to highlight two of the most stubborn obstacles to real progress, namely Unawareness and Impossibilism. I have long argued that the prime responsibility for improved standards of farm animal welfare lies not in the hands of the farmers, or even the legislators, but with us who buy the food. Farmers can only farm and legislators can only legislate to the standards that the public demand. Real improvements in welfare standards in, for example, broiler chickens, laying hens and dairy cows, can only happen when the general public is aware there is a problem, has some understanding of the nature of the problem and cares enough to bring about change through legislation and/or through changes in their buying habits. The latter route tends to be the quicker. It will be nearly 50 years between the publication of the Brambell Report on the Welfare of Farm Animals in Intensive Systems (1965) and the EU enforcement of a modification of the cage for laying hens (2012). Over a much shorter time period public awareness of the problems of the battery cage has increased the sale of free range eggs to the point where in some regions of the U.K. they are approaching 50% of market share. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the careful publications of animal welfare scientists have made much of a contribution to increased public awareness. The most impact has, of course, been achieved by the campaigning groups. However, the most effective campaigning groups have been those who have avoided making impossible and immediate demands and settled down to work for achievable progress towards improved standards.

The RSPCA ‘Freedom Food’ Scheme is a case in point. The role of the animal welfare scientist in this context is twofold: first to improve our understanding of animal welfare as perceived by the animals themselves, then to help mould public opinion. For example, the life that she who buys the eggs would wish for the hen should be as close as possible to that which the hen would wish for herself.


We may have a greater awareness of the real problems of animal welfare than the Ukrainians and a more realistic approach to their resolution, but they have only just acquired the freedom to address the question. Nevertheless, the comparison does suggest that although our own progress may have been painfully slow, we have been limping in more or less the right direction. Mencius, a Chinese philosopher from the third century B.C. wrote “The path of duty lies in what is near, and man seeks for it in what is remote”. This is, I believe, an excellent maxim for those who are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to the cause of animal welfare. None of us can expect to see our final destination, but for those who are prepared to open their eyes, the immediate horizon is full of promise.