Human stewardship and animal welfare

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Animal welfare must be clearly defined and understood in all languages. Welfare means well-being, so that ‘bad-welfare’ is contradictory. Welfare depends upon the provision of all necessary physiological and psychological requirements and the absence or control of adverse factors. Recognition of animals’ sentience led to concerns for their welfare. Since animals can neither obtain nor sustain rights for themselves they depend upon humans for their welfare. Stewardship involves responsibility for something and also responsibility to someone. This can mean responsibility to God, or for those without religious beliefs, responsibility to future generations. Veterinarians act as stewards, responsible for treating animals and responsible to the owners. They also have responsibilities to society. Different societies have different expectations of their veterinarians but veterinarians are well placed to support human stewardship for animal welfare.

Although what I have to say later will apply to all animals, I wish first of all to emphasise the welfare of farm animals because this topic has sometimes received less attention than the welfare of companion or experimental animals. One reason for this emphasis is the very large number of farm animals compared to other species. In Britain less than 3 million animals are used a year for experiments. There are estimated to be some 7 million dogs and probably a similar number of cats. However, there were more than 11 million cattle, more than 7 million pigs and more than 29 million sheep on British farms at the end of 1994. At that time too there were more than 129 million poultry, excluding turkeys. These figures do not include animals killed earlier in the year. Even if the figures are not a reflection of the situation worldwide, numerically the potential welfare problems of farm animals outweigh those of other species. The early days of my professional life were spent in practice in the immediate post-war period. There was grave economic austerity and food was still rationed. Home production of meat, milk and eggs was a high priority. Under these conditions the welfare of farm animals received comparatively little attention, apart from the basic prevention of cruelty. As the years passed and prosperity returned, the welfare of animals, and of farm animals especially, has become a topic of major importance in Britain. I believe the same to be true of other Western countries. Concern for the welfare of animals seems to occur when a civilised social order has developed together with a stable economy and relative prosperity. There is a very important lesson here. Rightly or wrongly the welfare of animals is secondary to the welfare of humans. We cannot expect people who are hungry or cold, or who are suffering from hardship or disease to extend to animals those benefits that they themselves do not enjoy.