Animal welfare issues – some theory behind the practice

As a country based on animal exports, it’s important that our animal welfare standards lead the world. We must be ahead of anyone who sees our standards as a way to block our trade. Before we start trying to change the world, we need to start off at home, and New Zealanders need to know what’s going on and especially why.

Here’s some important theory. Domestication is based on a deal – where both man and the animal had to give up something to end up with a compromise to deliver a ‘win-win’ outcome. The late Dr Ron Kilgour described this as the ‘Domestic Contract’. So for example with pigs, man will house and feed them, keep them healthy and happy (as judged by him), in return for the provision of meat after a painless humane death.
 
Now the pig cannot write its side of the contract, so man has to do that for the pig, and as Dr Kilgour kept stressing, this contract must be regularly updated and that’s the role of NAWAC- the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee.
 
The Animal Welfare Act 1999 stressed that decisions on the welfare of animals had to be made on “sound science” and that they must be based on the “Five Freedoms” where the animal has the right to freedom from: 
  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom from fear and distress
  5. Freedom to express "normal" behaviour
Number 4 needs thought, to realise the difference between ‘stress and distress’. Some stress in animals (and humans) is harmless (and even good for us), but when it moves into distress it’s all bad. The problem is deciding where the division is, and what criteria to use to make the decision. So for example does the price of pork, justify keeping distressed sows in stalls?
 
For number 5, it's often easier to define what is "abnormal" behaviour rather than normal behaviour. Personal human opinion and feelings (both informed and not informed) can get involved, and add TV to that and issues get out of control. 
 
Science has shown that farm animals need the following to express their normal behaviour, if given a choice:
  • Social contact
  • Food and water
  • Warmth
  • Ventilation
  • Space
  • Opportunities to play
  • Opportunity for courtship and mating
 To anyone in New Zealand who has had anything to do with animals, these are basic common sense, but then the price of food comes into the picture. Most shoppers around the world today think food comes from the supermarket, and they have driven the meat section away from displaying carcasses so “the animal” cannot be recognised any more.
 
Customers’ concerns about pig welfare or battery hen welfare will not be fixed by NAWAC as they are a bureaucracy of well-meaning people trying to keep everyone happy. This is impossible, so the solution is easy – don’t buy the product. There are plenty of alternative products in a modern supermarket.
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