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The Science and Implications of Animal Sentience

by 5m Editor
23 March 2005, at 12:00am

UK - Scientists and industry consultants address farm animal welfare at major international conference. Delegates from around the globe attend the Compassion in World Farming International Conference.

The Science and Implications of Animal Sentience - UK - Scientists and industry consultants address farm animal welfare at major international conference. Delegates from around the globe attend the Compassion in World Farming International Conference.

On the 17th and 18th March 2005, researchers, academics and livestock industry representatives from around the world gathered in London to discuss advances in the field of research into animal sentience. Speaking at the conference, Professor Marian Dawkins of Oxford University warned of the danger of defining animal welfare "in terms of what well-meaning people think animals want or what pleases people rather than allowing animals to speak for themselves. They may not have a language as we know it but they can vote with their feet - and their beaks and their paws - and, as Darwin recognized, they can express their emotions in a variety of ways, particularly through their behaviour."

"Livestock farming is becoming more animal centred" says Roland Bonney, international food industry consultant and director of the Food Animal Initiative (FAI) in Oxford. Bonney described how he and his colleagues are developing livestock systems that 'build welfare' in at the design stage.

Roland Bonney
International food industry consultant and director of the Food Animal Initiative (FAI)
Speaking at the conference, Bonney stated that as people take more of an interest in what they are eating, for reasons of their own and their family's health, there would be a growing awareness of how food is really produced. "Production methods at odds with consumer perceptions will ultimately be rejected, for reasons of intensity and scale or lack of accountability." Bonney introduced the new concept of the 'tool of advocacy' whereby the voice of the animals could be heard at all stages, helping those in the boardroom, and at distance from the farm, to recognize the impact of their decisions on the animals in their supply chain. Bonney identified the components of the 'tool' under four major headings: welfare codes; expert input; feed back and review mechanisms and investment in progress.

Speaking to the Times, Professor John Webster described an experiment in which hens were fed a mixture of blue and yellow grain. The yellow grain was harmless, but the blue grain contained lithium chloride which made them feel ill. The hens quickly learnt to avoid the blue grain. The same hens then laid eggs and when the chicks were three weeks old the mother hens encouraged them to roam around the farm as they normally would. Blue and yellow grain was scattered around the farm once again, although this time both blue and yellow grains were harmless. The mother hens, sensing danger for their young, immediately began to push the chicks away from the blue grain and lead them to the yellow instead. Professor Webster said: "What this tells us is that the mother hen has learnt what food is good and what is bad for her…she will not let [her chicks] eat the bad food and she is passing on to her young what she has learnt. To me that is pretty close to culture - and an advanced one at that."

The behaviour of farm animals has also been studied by Professor Donald Broom from Cambridge University. The BBC reported this week that Professor Broom's team put cows into a special pen which had a lever that, when pressed, would release the cows into a field with lots of delicious food rewards. The researchers found that when the cows worked out how to press the lever to reach the food they showed signs of delight. Professor Broom told the BBC, "When they learnt it they showed an excitement response. Their heart rates increased and they were more likely to jump and gallop when they went towards the food. It was as if the animals were saying 'Eureka! I've found out how to solve the problem'. We need to have a certain amount of respect for these animals and I think most people have more respect for an animal if they feel it's aware of what's going on."

Also speaking at the conference, which was part sponsored by the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Tesco, Keith Kenny, Head of Food Strategy, McDonald's Restaurants UK highlighted his company's on-going commitment to supporting progress in animal welfare in the food industry. He pointed out that although McDonalds do not own their own farms they do take the issue of animal welfare within their supply chain extremely seriously and will continue to seek solutions, supported by science, for the future.

Source: Compassion in World Farming International Conference - 17th-18th March 2005