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Animal care - no longer business as usual

Jim Salfer

Published in Dairy Star August 2, 2008

Jim Salfer with cow.

Dairy producers may not kiss their animals, but they generally give them the best care possible. J. Salfer

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting symposium on bioethics/animal well being at the American Dairy Science Association meeting. There were several excellent speakers that challenged the audience to increase awareness of their husbandry practices and how they would be viewed by our customers.

University of Florida scientist Dr. Wes Jamison indicated we all realize consumers are more removed from food production and need education to better understand modern agricultural practices, but he challenged us to do more than just "educate" consumers. He said it is also important to listen to them. Modern society's perspective on animals is different than past generations and education will not change their point of reference. His main reasons for this new perspective include:

  1. Urbanization - When we were primarily an agrarian society, animals were viewed primarily as "tools". Animals served as beasts of burden, herders, as well as sources of meat, milk and other products. Currently for the majority of the people, animals are viewed as companions. Companion animals inhabit an area between property and people. They often replace spouses and/or children in our lives. Dr. Jamison argues that as the role of animals in society has changed, so has their political and legal status. Recently a television program, "Greatest American Dog" has debuted. Even in relatively rural communities there are dog spa's and pet sitters. If you get a chance, listen closely to television or radio commercials about pet products or browse through a magazine rack and look at the magazines about pets. These images clearly shape the public's perspective about how animals should be cared for in our society.
  2. Anthropomorphism - This is portraying animals to have human traits such as reasoning. Many television shows and commercials (including some paid for by agricultural producers) portray animals with human characteristics.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that many in society have a difficult time understanding modern agriculture. They wonder how livestock producers can claim they love their animals and yet are very willing to send them to slaughter for food. Then, those in agriculture are rapid to criticize consumers as ignorant.

Surveys suggest that most consumers desire to consume animal derived products and understand that food animals are not pets. However, they intensely desire that animals have the best care possible, minimizing suffering and pain in daily management practices. The days of using just economics to justify how animals are treated is rapidly coming to an end. I don't think many of us would tolerate going to the dentist for a root canal and having the dentist not use any anesthetic because of economics.

Stanley Curtis, University of Illinois animal scientist, believes that producers need to have a respectful dialogue with the consumers in order to continue in the livestock business. A dialogue is different than "educating" consumers to justify current livestock management practices. Both Curtis and Jamison believe there needs to be 'give and take' on the part of the livestock community and consumers.

The first step is for the livestock community to closely scrutinize all current management practices. Dr. Jamison challenges all of the industry to determine if animal production systems meet "Mrs. Johnson's third grade class test". That is, would we allow an elementary class to observe current generally acceptable and approved practices in the animal science community, then go home and tell their friends and parents? Can we explain clearly and justify, from an animal well being perspective, the management interventions that are performed on the farm? Would the public accept the answer that to apply these practices are in our best economic interest? I believe that most consumers are not ignorant and will continue to use animal products. But we need to practice what we preach - raise animals because we enjoy working with them and will do everything possible to make sure they are well taken care of. This includes minimizing their pain and suffering.

The animal industry cannot continue to tolerate or condone bad activities. The industry needs to take a very strong stance of zero tolerance for mistreatment of animals. Unless this is done, all the rhetoric about how livestock producers care about their animals will seem disingenuous with the public.

Dr. Jamison argues that if the livestock industry does not take the steps to open a dialogue and listen to consumers, there will be legislative action that will decide how livestock farms are managed. The livestock industry is better off being proactive and honest with the public, realizing some changes of management practices may be needed. It is important that the livestock industry take a more holistic view of livestock production and balance the interest of the livestock owner, environmental impact, societal impact and care of the animals.

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