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Animal Welfare - Book Reviews

Volume 31 
Issue 3
August 2022






Through a Vet’s Eyes: How We Can All Choose a Better Life for Animals 

S Wensley (2022). Published by Gaia, an imprint of Octopus Publishing, 50 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DZ, UK. 368 pages Hardback (ISBN: 978-1856754743). Price £13.99 (Kindle: £9.99).

As undergraduate vets in the 1970s, my fellow students and I were frequently told that the primary role of the veterinarian was “to produce meat and milk.” That is, after the privations of the 1940s and 1950s, we were to join the effort to maximise the supply of domestically produced food from farmed animals. Despite the oath we all took on graduation to ensure the welfare of the animals in our care, animal welfare was not taught as part of the syllabus and I recall being profoundly shocked when one of the lecturers warned us about the RSPCA, “They are bad news.”

While the alleviation and avoidance of suffering was an important part of the course, much of what we were taught was about how to manage the impact of farming and intensification on the lives of our clients’ charges. A cynical view has it that most vets spend most of their time facilitating society’s exploitation of animals. This includes ensuring they grow well so we can eat them, ensuring they recover from going lame so we can ride them, and ensuring they aren’t diseased so they don’t poison us. The rest of the work involves straightening out the inherited and acquired defects brought about by irresponsible breeding and incompetent care. That might have been true of the graduates of the 1970s and 1980s but it isn’t now.

I believe things have changed in the last 40 odd years. There have been two complete generations of veterinarians since I graduated, and they are very different animals in comparison to me and my contemporaries. This attitudinal change to what is tolerated and acceptable in our relationship with the animals in our lives is well-illustrated by Sean Wensley’s recent book Through a Vet’s Eyes. Recent graduates are, in my experience, much more likely to put animal welfare at the front and centre of their thinking and in their professional lives. Sean is no exception.

There are many books about animal welfare — some like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation take a philosophical approach and others, like UFAW’s venerable series, stay resolutely close to the science. Others, like Philip Lymberry’s Farmageddon campaign mercilessly almost to the point of seeking to radicalise the reader. In contrast, Through a Vet’s Eyes strikes a clever balance between these often competing positions. While many of the animal welfare themes the book covers are familiar to us — there are chapters featuring the debate over the welfare of caged laying hens, of pets with inherited but avoidable defects and the routine mutilation of farmed animals, humane slaughter, etc — it is Sean’s take on each of these issues that sets it apart. The writing is clear, witty and precise, reflecting Sean’s knowledge and passion for the welfare of the animals he comes across.

Sean’s other passion — his love of watching wildlife — book-ends each chapter. His knowledge and insight into the natural world, nurtured since his teens, provide a useful and often poignant counterpoint to his experience with farmed and captive animals. All too often we justify and perpetuate the arbitrary categories into which we place the animals around us without sufficient recognition that frequently it is the same animal but simply in different circumstances. Sean cuts through this and makes no assumptions about the experience of animals in different circumstances. This is used to good effect in the first chapter via his description and explanation of the similarities in the forelimb of a variety of different mammals. If the anatomy of limb of the cat, the horse and ourselves are fundamentally similar and the same can be said of our brains, then we ought to be giving the benefit of the doubt to the animals we keep, exploit and eat.

To be clear, this is not an academic text and although it is well-referenced and carefully researched, it is essentially Sean’s thoughtful and highly personal take on how we exploit animals. It is accessible and easy to read: I like how the reader is introduced to complex problems; while there is no sense that one is being talked down to, the text is unflinching in its descriptions of the procedures and problems that bedevil the advocates of better animal welfare. Despite this, the book sticks to the evidence and there is sufficient detail about the science (and sometimes the gore) to remind us that using biology, anatomy and physiology are the keys to improving animal welfare.

Every routine procedure is questioned — from the dehorning of cattle, to the confinement of pigs and dairy cows, to the methods of slaughter, to the castration and tail-docking of lambs, Sean explores the process and offers alternatives drawing on the evidence of harm and lack of value in many of the routine mutilations and practices. It is encouraging to see these routine abuses being raised and questioned by a veterinarian and particularly in a book aimed squarely at the lay reader. All of us need to understand better what goes on during the production of our food.

The chapter on horses, entitled ‘Hummingbirds and horses’, goes further and questions the very essence of our routine exploitation of a species: Sean’s time working with horses in California stimulates an almost forensic examination of the effects of our keeping and using horses for our pleasure and for furthering our business interests. Horses suffer a variety of welfare problems which only exist because of the way in which we exploit them — for example, racing injuries, gastric ulcers, the effects of stabling on equine behaviour, etc. Sean examines each and concludes that an ethical approach should be used to determine the balance between harms and benefits. This means, like most of the animals we exploit to an extreme, we can only improve their welfare if we demand less of them. Less speed, less rapid growth, less meat and less extreme conformation.

Companion animals — mainly dogs and rabbits — are similarly examined. The book includes a rather withering assessment of the nature of the relationship between dogs and their owners and a scathing criticism of the appalling nature of the extremes of dog breeding. Sean, however, is much too collegiate to pin the blame on anyone in particular for this sorry state of affairs. I’ve known Sean for several years and this approach is characteristic. He calmly calls for a collaborative approach involving scientists, veterinarians and breeders to find solutions. And it is this lack of preaching that makes the book all the more powerful. One might question whether this approach is appropriate for all the issues the book covers — I was expecting and hoping that Sean might show his teeth at some stage in the book, but they stay hidden. It’s simply not in his nature.

The book’s concluding chapter, ‘The power of one’, includes a useful guide for the interested reader — how to purchase animal products ethically, how to influence businesses and politicians — whether acting individually and collectively, Sean believes we can make a difference. As an individual, he advocates eating less and better meat in the expectation that this will both improve the welfare of farmed animals and reduce global heating. I wish I shared his optimism: the amount of cheap protein that derives from the hapless broiler increases every year and its growing dominance of agriculture is a cause for concern that won’t be solved by a few of us buying the occasional free-range chicken.

A book like this is important not just for its content but for the fact that exists at all. The veterinary profession risks being characterised as an enabler of animal exploitation. Sean Wensley’s new book gives the lie to this view. An increasing number of mainly young veterinarians are unhappy with the treatment of farmed animals and companion animals. Too few of us put pen to paper to express these thoughts. Sean is to be congratulated for doing just that and doing it in a way that is accessible and above all influential.

Alick Simmons,
Trustee, UFAW, Wheathampstead, UK

Behavioral Biology of Laboratory Animals

Edited by K Coleman and SJ Schapiro (2022). Published by CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL 33487, USA. 560 pages Hardback (ISBN: 978-0-367-02923-4). Price £154.55.

The study of laboratory animal behaviour is of fundamental importance to biomedical research. It provides an insight into the onset, development, and progress of neurological, neurodegenerative, and behavioural diseases. It sheds light upon the influence of genes in our behaviour, their interaction with the environment, and how this is affected by mutations. It provides a gauge through which to evaluate induced changes when testing safety and efficacy of therapies. And, most importantly, an understanding of the natural behaviour of laboratory animals and their wild counterparts enables us to meet animals’ behavioural needs and improve their welfare in a meaningful way.

Behavioral Biology of Laboratory Animals (edited by Kristine Coleman and Steven J Schapiro) thoroughly addresses the main behavioural features of the most common laboratory animal species, throughout 560 pages divided into 30 chapters. The roster of 49 contributors is predominantly female (73%) and from English-speaking countries (82%). The writing style is accessible, yet scientifically rigorous. Despite the lack of a glossary, the field-specific terminology is broadly known and will be readily familiar to the book’s target-audience.

Whilst delivering an extensive scientific remit, each chapter in the book is evidently very clearly conceived and structured, expressing a clear aim to inform optimal husbandry and care decisions via the meeting of each species’ specific behavioural needs.

The first five chapters are introductory and are followed by a series of species-specific chapters. After a quick overview, readers are introduced to fundamental animal behaviour and ethology concepts. Although those searching specifically for an ethology textbook would be better served looking elsewhere, these chapters have merit in the way they frame behavioural concepts in terms of their impact on laboratory animal care and welfare, thereby highlighting the relevance of identifying abnormal behaviour and of understanding behavioural clues when assessing welfare. These introductory chapters also provide the reader with the necessary information needed to operationalise the content in the species-specific chapters, in order to develop and implement monitoring protocols, behavioural management strategies, and measures for addressing behavioural problems. I would, thus, recommend that as a minimum, the introductory chapters should be read along with chapters featuring species of particular interest.

These species-specific chapters cover a range of species that, in total, constitute over 90% of the laboratory animals used in the EU (EU-28 in 2017, source: ALLURES database; European Commission). This comprehensive list includes the more common rodents, such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, and hamsters as well as those less commonly used, such as deer and white-footed mice, gerbils, and voles. Companion animal species (dogs and domestic cats), farmed animal species (sheep, cattle, pigs) and those somewhere in-between (horses, rabbits, and ferrets), are also included. The list of bird species covered is more restricted, but highly representative, as it includes chickens, quail, and zebra finches. Non-human primates are extensively represented, with marmosets, squirrel monkeys, owl monkeys, capuchins, rhesus and long-tailed macaques, vervet monkeys, and baboons each having a chapter devoted to them. Two of the chapters, namely the ones on amphibians and reptiles, encompass too wide a range of species for the pages provided, and are therefore somewhat underwhelming. However, both constitute a valuable contribution to science-based welfare and care of species for which there is a paucity of peer-reviewed papers. Contrastingly, the immense fish taxon is only represented by a single species, the growingly popular zebra fish.

The most noted absentees are goats, cephalopods, and other fish species. Although together these comprise a combined total of less than 8% of the animals used in EU-28, including them in a future edition would definitely be a plus, as they are of particular relevance in certain specific research fields and countries (eg in Norway 93% of all animals used in research belong to the ‘other fish’ category). Another useful addition would have been the spiny mouse (Acomys spp), an emerging animal model in regeneration studies that currently presents considerable housing and welfare challenges.

The text is structured consistently for all of the species-specific chapters which not only eases the reading experience but facilitates consultation, ensuring that all the key points are readily available for each group of animals covered in the book. Hence, each chapter contains an introduction on the use and relevance of the given species — or group of species — in research, describing essential aspects of their natural behaviour, as well as their normal and abnormal behaviour in captivity. The book contains a plethora of figures and pictures which, in most chapters, includes well-specified examples of recommended housing for captive animals, following high standards of enrichment. The beautiful front cover art should also be highlighted.

Another welcome feature is the annex containing a selection of ethograms based on or adapted from — duly referenced — key literature, for studying the behaviour of the most commonly used species covered in the book, namely rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, ferrets, domestic cats, pigs, horses, zebra finches, zebra fish, marmosets, capuchin monkeys, vervet monkeys, and baboons (plus a dog ethogram embedded in the respective chapter). Readers are also directed to other reliable sources for comprehensive ethograms for mice, and macaques, freely available on-line.

I recommend Behavioral Biology of Laboratory Animals for anyone with an interest in studying the behaviour and welfare of laboratory animal species, as well as animal welfare officers, designated veterinarians, and all those responsible for animal care and behavioural management in research laboratories, as well as in parks and zoos hosting these species. Lecturers in animal welfare-related topics will also find an essential science-based reference for both them and their students. This includes those teaching modules EU-3.1, EU-4, and EU-5 in laboratory animal courses following EU-functions.

Nuno Henrique Franco,
i3S, Universidade do Porto

Guilty Pigs: The Weird and Wonderful History of Animal Law

K Barnett and J Gans (2022). Published by La Trobe University Press (in conjunction with Black Inc), 22-24 Northumberland Street, Collingwood, VIC 3066, Australia. 368 pages Paperback (ISBN: 9781760641849). Price A$ 34.99 (ebook: A$16.99).

If you are not a lawyer and wondering about the relevance of a book about the history of animal law, I can reassure you that this is an interesting and thought-provoking read for both lawyers and non-lawyers alike. The authors have not attempted to write a ‘black letter’ law textbook, tracing judicial precedent and legislation. Rather, the focus is on the story of how legal systems approach non-human animals where their interests come into contact with those of people. The book gives us a historical perspective on the origins of the laws relating to animals, setting in context the current treatment of animals by legal systems.

Another concern that may dissuade those outside the law from reading this book is that it is likely to be of niche interest to lawyers and legal academics practicing or teaching animal-related law, with little relevance or interest to wider society. I would suggest that the converse is actually true for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the book appears to be written with a lay audience in mind, there is no legal jargon and where legal terms are necessarily used, there is a clear explanation of the meaning. The book is also written in an interesting and entertaining matter, notwithstanding the seriousness of the issues touched upon and there is a focus on storytelling, which can be absent from black letter law case reports.

Secondly, instead of accepting the law as it is, the book offers an understanding of why it is so, a vital first step in the critical evaluation of the status quo. Without understanding how we reached the position we are in as regards the law’s categorisation and approach to animal interests, it is harder to understand the case for change.

Thirdly, and finally, the book is not about the law per se, but wider societal values towards animals. In the words of Mike Radford “The law is the means by which society expresses its collective choice” (Radford 2001; p 11). The book therefore speaks to human relationships with other animals, and it significantly adds to our understanding of this relationship, including how our attitudes have been shaped by ancient philosophy, and religious and cultural and attitudes towards animals, which have evolved over time.

The book is not about the laws that regulate our conduct towards animals. It does not attempt to chart the laws that seek to protect animal welfare. Neither does it critique animal welfare laws, which would have been a vast undertaking. It is not intended as a reference book and written from an international perspective; care should be taken not to rely upon it for legal research purposes, that is not the intention.

The book starts by examining the concept of animals as property and the ownership rights that we have over them. As the authors explain, the legal status of animals as ‘property’ or ‘legal things’ has certain ramifications for their welfare, including the fact that it confers the right to sell, abandon or kill animals who are the subject of property rights (save to the extent that legislation has modified unqualified property rights). In this respect, the authors consider different approaches to the ownership rights a person can have over wild, domesticated and semi-domesticated animals. The parallels with ownership of enslaved people over the course of history is also given thoughtful consideration and the authors bring us up to date with modern attempts to secure judicial recognition of personhood for species of animals in respect of whom the weight of scientific evidence suggests can exercise practical autonomy.

The legal status of animals as property also impacts in a practical way upon the treatment of the animals’ interests when there is a dispute about ownership and the book contains an interesting account of how the courts have approached this in the event of family breakdowns, where there is a conflict between ownership rights and animal welfare. How is the ‘property’ divided when the family dog, for example, is bonded to and can have his or her welfare needs better met by a spouse who did not purchase the dog and is therefore not the legal owner?

Lest it be thought this is a purely academic or theoretical discussion, the legislature in Spain has recently amended the civil and criminal codes to modify the status of animals as property by recognising that they are sentient beings, thus enabling judges to take into account the welfare needs of an animal, where otherwise the only relevant consideration would be legal title (Spain 2022).

The authors cover the treatment of animals in law within a range of contexts and they do not shy away from sensitive topics such as sexual contact with animals. As well as considering the type of sexual contact with animals that attracts criminal liability (in many jurisdictions not all sexual conduct with animals is illegal), the authors explain how the criminal justice system has treated animals who are the subject of such sexual conduct. It may come as a surprise to learn that at some points in history both the person involved in the sexual act and the animal may have faced criminal prosecution and possibly even the death penalty.

A related issue is how the legal systems in ancient and medieval times treated animals such as ox or pigs who killed or injured people, or even insects destroying crops, who could be subject to the full force of the criminal law. While we may look back at animal trials with amusement, the question of how society deals with animals who injure or kill is still relevant today. Most frequently, society has to grapple with this in relation to dog attacks. The question arises, who should be held responsible when a dog attack causes injury to a person: the owner or person in charge of the dog who may bear responsibility for the training and control of the dog in their possession, or the dog? Are concepts such as punishment and retribution legitimate when applied to the behaviour of animals and, if so, is there a difference between the conduct of wild or domesticated animals who cause injury?

Another interesting issue touched upon in the book is how the courts have approached animals as potential witnesses of fact or experts in judicial proceedings. From the inferences that judges have been prepared to draw upon the behaviour of animals, to the role of animals in the detection of crime and law enforcement.

This is not a mere benign trot through history though. The concluding chapter draws upon the various themes in the book to address some important and current issues, not least of which is our evolving understanding of the inner lives of species such as octopus and a variety of other invertebrates in respect of whom there is scientific evidence not only of their sentience (Birch 2021), but also their complex lives and cognitive abilities, as laid bare by documentaries such as My Octopus Teacher. An understanding of their complexities and therefore their interests and needs, is the cause for much disquiet regarding the legal permissibility of aquaculture systems being developed to breed and rear octopus in tanks or ‘octopus farms’ for food (see, for example, Jacquet et al 2019). It also raises fundamental questions about the lack of legal protection for these species at the time of killing, including protection from being boiled (lobsters) or cooked (octopus) alive, now seen through the compass of social media that makes visible their desperate attempts to escape the painful stimuli they are exposed to. The octopus perhaps serves as the greatest reminder that the origin and development of our law is based upon a pre-Darwinian understanding of animals that historically have been denied even acceptance of their conscious awareness.

As we continue to understand non-human animals better, so we will be challenged to create a fair and just legal system that reflects our understanding of the interests and needs of other species. This book does much to contribute to the understanding of the animal within society’s legal systems and how we arrived here, as well as looking ahead to the many challenges we face to ensure that animal interests are fully protected by law.


Birch J, Burn C, Schnell A, Browning H and Crump A 2021 Review of the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. Commissioned and funded by Defra. https://www.lse.ac.uk/business/consulting/assets/documents/Sentience-in-Cephalopod-Molluscs-and-Decapod-Crustaceans-Final-Report-November-2021.pdf   

Jacquet J, Franks B, Godfrey-Smith P and Sanchez-Suarez W 2019 The case against octopus farming. Issues in Science and Technology 35(2): 37-44

Radford M 2001 Animal Welfare Law in Britain: Regulation and Responsibility. Oxford University Press: UK

Spain 2022 Spain: New Law Providing for Increased Protection of Animals Adopted. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2022-01-17/spain-new-law-providing-for-increased-protection-of-animals-adopted/

Paula Sparks,
University of Winchester (Visiting Professor) and UK Centre for Animal Law, UK

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