A steward is someone who is entrusted with the management of another person’s property—e.g., the paid manager of a farm or estate. Stewardship is thus the office or position of a steward. Stewardship involves two responsibilities. The first is for the care of the property which is entrusted to the steward, the farm or estate for example. The second responsibility is to the owner or employer who employs the steward to manage the farm or estate. When applied to animal welfare, the concept of stewardship imposes upon man a responsibility for the care and welfare of animals. There is also responsibility to a higher authority for the way in which the stewardship is exercised. In the Biblical sense, in the Jewish and Christian faiths the responsibility for stewardship is to God. I believe this would also be true in Islam and in other religious faiths. To agnostics and atheists, the responsibility for stewardship would probably be to their fellow men both living now and still to come. Thus, the concept of stewardship should be acceptable to members of many religious faiths and also to those of none. A further advantage is that human stewardship can be extended to other living and non-living things, e.g., plants, our architectural heritage, and the environment. Applied to animals it should ensure their welfare, something which should be acceptable to those who believe animals have rights, as well as those who do not.
Role of veterinarians
From earliest times, veterinarians or their professional predecessors have been employed in treating sick animals. Gradually veterinary involvement extended from the treatment of disease to disease prevention, to animal management and to animal welfare. Since practising veterinarians who undertake the care of animals are usually responsible to their owners, it is obvious that they are usually acting in the role of steward. Thus, the notion of stewardship is not a difficult concept for veterinarians. There may be difficulties in the practical situation, however. The practising veterinarian called by an owner to see one or more animals does not usually have any significant regulatory authority. He can exercise the highest degree of therapeutic care for his patients and can give their owners the best possible advice on management and animal welfare, but this remains advice and may not be heeded. His advice on animal welfare must be carefully considered and given, for he has few sanctions where his advice is neglected or animal welfare is abused. Thus, his advice must be achievable in the particular circumstances without there being impractical demands or excessive costs. His sanctions as a steward of animal welfare are to withdraw where his advice is not taken and serious abuses continue, or to make a report to the competent authorities. Since it is unlikely that either of these choices can be exercised more than once with a particular animal owner the veterinarian may think it better to continue to attend in the hope that his counsels may prevail in the future. The difficulty is far greater when large numbers of animals and complex intensive systems of husbandry are involved. Despite the lack of immediate sanctions, veterinarians who encounter welfare problems have another course of action open to them. Although it may take longer, this course will almost certainly be more far reaching and effective. By discussion with professional colleagues and others, and through the efforts of their national veterinary associations, veterinarians can formulate policies to improve animal welfare. They can also influence public opinion in the society in which they live. In my experience, veterinary professional opinion on animal welfare matters is usually respected—probably because veterinarians are seen to act as stewards with little direct financial interest. In the long run, therefore, good practices can be encouraged and bad practices may be banned.