Fun on the Farm

A press release entitled ‘Positive farm animal welfare: something in it for everyone’ was recently issued jointly by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh University. Hitherto, the announcement says, the welfare of farm animals has been mainly defined in negative terms: thus, four of the so-called ‘five freedoms’ (first formulated in the Brambell Report of 1965 as the basic entitlement for farm animals, and since revised and adopted by various agencies and charities) are freedoms from suffering – from thirst, fear, pain, and so on. By contrast, ‘positive animal welfare’ is a “relatively new idea which brings attention to animals having a good life”. And something’s “in it for everyone” because there’s “growing evidence” that this positive welfare running otmoor pigmay improve animal health and growth, reduce therapeutic costs (including antibiotic treatment), make farming accordingly more sustainable and profitable, and in sum provide benefits not just to the animals but also to “suppliers and consumers of animal products”.

Not a very good life for the animals, then, since it remains essentially life-for-use and ends prematurely as food, but better while it lasts. Or rather, not to run ahead of ourselves, ‘positive animal welfare’ is an “idea” which acknowledges the possibility that animals might actively enjoy their lives, if allowed to; there’s a need, as always, for “further research” to make things more certain.

What such research may involve is suggested in the one piece of completed work mentioned in the press release. Scientists at the SRUC and the Roslin Institute “found that litters of pigs that play the most also grow the fastest.” This brief description makes the research sound like fun and profit all round, but the title of the actual paper (published, ominously, in the journal Physiology and Behaviour) is rather more hard-boiled: ‘Up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex of piglets exposed to an environmentally enriched arena’. In fact the growth in question was (to put it less technically) in brain-matter, and the “play” was made available to the piglets for only a quarter of an hour on each of a few successive days. As to their subsequent careers, we’re told in the paragraph headed ‘ethical review’ that “All piglets were returned to commercial stock at the end of the study.” If you’re wondering how up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex can be measured consistently with the survival of the animal, the answer is that it can’t. In fact, the test piglets (aged approximately 8 weeks) were “euthanized” for “brain collection” very soon after their last 15 minutes of fun. Lower down the paper, the narrative is slightly revised to read “remaining piglets were returned to commercial farm stock.” But anyway, who knows which piglets really got the happier deal?

Incidentally, the same Professor Alistair Lawrence who issued the press release and led the research on piglet welfare was co-author of a 2014 paper in the same journal entitled ‘Prenatal stress produces anxiety-prone female offspring and impaired maternal behaviour in the domestic pig’ – another study which claims to have “direct relevance for farm animal welfare”, and no doubt it has. I won’t provide its details.

To return to the press release: one of the reasons it gives to explain “why the idea of positive animal welfare has emerged at this time” is that “people in general are interested in positive aspects of animals’ lives”. These ‘general’ people and their amateurish ‘interest’ are to be distinguished, it seems, from scientific people, among whom a more judicious and sceptical view is taken of the subject. After all, nearly 150 years of zoology have gone by since Charles Darwin enforced the lesson already implicit in his Origin of Species with his research into states of mind and their visibility published under the title The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). And yet we ‘general people’ are only now being told, with wonderful condescension, that “there’s growing scientific acceptance of animals experiencing positive experiences or emotions.”

Results in science are nothing if they’re not precise or at least open to precision, and of course precision takes time: there’s no point in complaining that science moves slowly (though of course it doesn’t always do that). Besides, since Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), we have to realise that there’s no such thing as finality even in science: ‘not yet disproved’ is the nearest we can get to scientific truth. What it is right to complain of is any disparagement by science of other means and forms of truth than this cautious and dispassionate one of its own – the refusal, as Bryan Appleyard puts it in Understanding the Present, “to co-exist with anything”. In one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the knowledgeable and self-assured boy Eustace, a keen entomologist of the type that prefers beetles “dead and pinned on a card”, neatly illustrates this point. When he meets the old man Ramandu, who claims to be a retired celestial star (these are fantasy stories, after all), he makes the pert classroom comment, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas”. Ramandu kindly corrects him thus: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The clever school-boyish assurance which characterises some versions of the scientific mind needs that same correction. It’s the one thing that mars, I would say, the otherwise brilliant and witty assertion of science’s authority in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I see it also in the comment which an Ohio State University physiologist has made on proposals to provide laboratory animals, specifically rodents, with enrichments of the sort briefly enjoyed by Professor Lawrence’s piglets: “You don’t need an amusement park to keep them happy.” Because, yes, this same argument about ‘positive animal welfare’ is going on in the laboratory, the North American laboratory anyway. And it’s being formulated in much the same terms – as a recent article in the American journal Science has shown.

Research has indicated, so we’re told in the article, that rats and mice “can experience a range of emotions once only attributed to people” (by scientists, at any rate). These emotions affect their health just as they do in humans. An oncologist is reported as saying, “there’s a hard science behind enrichment … You can’t just treat the body – you have to treat the mind.” Stressed and unhappy animals make bad models of disease, since their immune systems are already weakened. “If we want animals to tell us about stuff that’s going to happen to people, we need to treat them more like people.” This better treatment might involve providing such life-pleasures as “toys, companions, and opportunities to exercise and explore”. So it’s good for the science, and also good for the animals: as on the farm, there’s “something in it for everyone”.

It’s the toys which especially seem to have annoyed the physiologist already quoted. This Professor Godbout (a name C.S.Lewis might have enjoyed and put to use) studies ageing and stress in mice. Another reported opponent of the enrichment project is a student of alcoholism in mice. Neither man might be expected to have much sympathy, then, for efforts to improve the quality of life of their animals, since the essential aim of their research is to reduce it. But a part of their argument is that, so far from making animals better scientific models, enrichment will introduce unquantifiable variations between different studies, and so make them local and unreproducible. This all makes for an interesting debate, and forms the basis also for further research, as in the case of farm animals: so again, something in it for everyone.

As for toys: I would suggest that anyone who can see that word or the things themselves in the context of suffering without a serious pang needs to review their humanity (if we can trust that term). It’s true that journalists like to exploit the trope, spotting toys at crash sites and such, but that only suggests that it’s a reliably human appeal. To be told of a toy sewing machine in the ruins of a wrecked city (Mosul? Damascus?) and not to be moved by it would surely be inhuman. And I would say the same for “toys” in laboratories. The word reminds us, too, that animals, once fallen under human authority and control, have the character and situation of children. Not by chance did C.S.Lewis make children the objects of scientific research in his unfinished science fiction novel ‘The Dark Tower’: it’s the true relation. And dismissing these toys as an “amusement park” is indeed just what the boy Eustace would be doing. Whatever important and useful conclusions Professor Godbout comes to about aging and stress, we can be sure they’ll be a small part of what those conditions really mean to humans and to other animals.

And that’s the moral of all this. The Science article ends, more or less happily, with the words of a vet in charge of the enrichment project at the University of Michigan: “We owe it to these creatures to give them the best lives possible … We should be doing the best we can.” Science can have nothing to say, of course, about what we “owe” or “should be doing”. But all except the most fanatical of scientists would recognise that there’s no vice versa here: science itself must be subject to moral constraints, to such concepts as “owe” and “should”. This is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch meant when she wrote “There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous [agreed, in both cases], is now an important part.”

The concept of ‘positive animal welfare’, and the enrichment project at the University of Michigan, are welcome developments, and we must hope that the researches of such as Professor Lawrence in the matter of animal emotions and susceptibilities will indeed do something to improve the treatment of animals. Still, it’s perverse to rely on the maltreatment of some animals in order to help others, and it’s anyway not necessary. By the phrase “one culture”, Iris Murdoch meant the whole human mind and its history of communications in language and art. Over the centuries this mind has built a great tradition of sympathy and understanding for life beyond the human. We don’t need the particular sub-set of thought called science to authorize our trust in this achievement. Still less should we allow science to relegate or belittle it, or to postpone appropriate action while yet further research is done into what we already have every reason to treat as true: namely, that all life contains the urge to flourish, and accordingly that non-human varieties have just as much right to do so in their own ways as we have in ours.

 

Notes and references:

The press release about ‘positive animal welfare’ was issued in January 2018, and can be read here: https://www.sruc.ac.uk/downloads/file/3608/positive_farm_animal_welfare_something_in_it_for_everyone

It was reported online in the journal FarmingUK, and the quotation summarizing the research comes from there: https://www.farminguk.com/news/New-study-explores-positive-farm-animal-welfare-which-could-benefit-farmers_48754.html?refer_id=1900

The research paper on play and growth in piglets by Alistair Lawrence et al is published in Physiology and Behaviour, vol.173, 1 May 2017, pp.285-92.

The Science article – David Grimm, ‘The Happiness Project: advocates are pushing to enrich the lives of rodents and fish in the lab, but critics worry about the impact on research’ – is at pp.624-27 of the issue for 9 February 2018 (vol.359). All the quotations on the subject of laboratory animals are taken from there.

The quotation from Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Pan Books, 1992) is from p.9.

Eustace Scrubb appears first in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, published in 1952 but quoted here from the HarperCollins edition of 1997, pp. 1 and 159. It should be added that Eustace improves greatly in character during this and the later books in the series.

The Iris Murdoch quotation is from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34.

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