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Interview with Author David Fraser – Understanding Animal Welfare: The Science in its Cultural Context, Second Edition

7 February 2024

Following the publication of the second edition of ‘Understanding Animal Welfare’ in the UFAW/Wiley-Blackwell book series, we spoke to author David Fraser to find out more. David Fraser, CM, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

How does this edition differ from the original one? What areas have you expanded or added?
My goal for the first edition was to write a synthesis of the field, partly to clear up some of the confusion that had arisen when different scientists used different research methods and drew different conclusions about animal welfare. Back then, my intended audience was mostly scientists, graduate students and policymakers.

It soon became clear, however, that the book was also being used as a textbook for undergraduate courses in animal welfare, and I had some very good feedback from students, sometimes describing it as the first textbook that they actually enjoyed reading.

For the new edition, therefore, as well as adding two new chapters (see below) and greatly updating the research, I tried to make the book fully accessible for undergraduates by assuming a little less background knowledge and by doubling the number of photographs and other illustrations. I also tried to broaden the appeal of the book by using many more examples from companion animals, zoo animals and laboratory animals.

Has your view of animal welfare changed since the first edition and if so, in what way?
The early animal welfare research was focused quite strongly on the environments where animals are kept – cages for hens, stalls for sows and so on. But the research made it clear that human actions – by farm workers, animal owners, zoo visitors and others – have major effects on animal welfare regardless of what environment is used, and that the welfare of the animals is often linked to the welfare of the people involved. Therefore, in this edition I included a chapter on the “human dimension” of animal welfare, sometimes invoking the phrase “One Welfare” to emphasize the connections between human and animal welfare.

I have also become more focused on the welfare of free-living wildlife. In the late 1900s, the major issue in animal welfare was the institutionalized use of animals in intensive farming, biomedical research and so on. But that same century saw many new human technologies: cars that now injure millions of vertebrate animals every day, large glass windows that kill or injure billions of birds each year, and of course the technologies that are changing the climate. Thus we are now in a century when human actions are having profound effects on the welfare of free-living wildlife. I therefore included a chapter to introduce some key findings in this area.

What do you think are the most impactful changes animal welfare science has had on the way we care for animals, and what are the greatest future challenges?
In 1975, when I published a paper on the welfare of sows in stalls, I never dreamed that countries would start banning those stalls 25 years later. This is one of several cases where research helped lead to the elimination of highly restrictive housing and other bad practices.

But the challenge is to ensure that the alternatives are really better. As just one example, when farms began to move away from sow stalls, some of the alternatives – such as uncontrolled group housing with high levels of aggression – were really terrible. This was partly because the staff had no idea how to manage sows in open housing. So it’s good to abolish harmful housing and other bad practices, but we need to make sure that the alternatives are truly better. And that includes attending to the human factors such as having enough staff, having staff who are skilled and attentive, and having staff that like animals and enjoy working with them.

You state that animal welfare is best seen as a conglomerate concept, existing as an intersection of the concepts of health, affect (feelings) and nature/naturalness. Can a focus on one of these guide us in asking questions about animal welfare and finding how best to improve it?
Many scientists and others have tried to “define” animal welfare to encompass only affect, or only health, or only natural living. But animal welfare is a field of “mandated” science along with food safety, environmental sustainability and many other topics. These are fields where science is asked to provide guidance to meet certain concerns that have arisen in society. In these fields, scientists are not free to redefine the concept to suit their beliefs or priorities, but rather need to listen to what the societal concerns are. And when we do this, we hear people express concerns over all three aspects: are animals healthy, are they happy, and can they live in accordance with their nature? Thus, scientists are off track if they focus on only one aspect, for example by creating systems that seem natural but involve heavy parasite loads, or pathogen-free buildings where animals are healthy but highly restrained. We need to find ways to address and balance the various concerns.

A good approach is to focus on animal welfare not as a concept but as a set of problems in all their diversity. Some animal welfare problems involve affective states such as pain, fear, or lack of pleasure. Some involve illness, injury and the functioning of the body. Some involve animals in unnatural environments, or not being able to use their natural abilities, or not being able to exert a natural level of “agency” over their lives. We will not make progress if we try to reduce all of these to a single theme by saying that welfare is only affect, only health or only naturalness. But we can make progress if we accept the plurality of animal welfare concerns and try to address them in practical ways, without trying to reduce welfare to any one theme.

You outline the gamut of approaches to measuring/assessing animal welfare - which of these do you see as having the greatest chance of improving the welfare of animals going forward? 
Here again, it helps to see animal welfare as a broad term that encompasses many different problems which require very different research methods. We can address health problems through the conventional tools of pathology, epidemiology and other health sciences. We can address problems of affect by studying vocalizations, bodily movements, facial expression, physiological responses and so on. And we can help animals better use their natural adaptations by studying their natural behaviour, how they use their environment, how to give them control over events in their lives, and so on. The key is to recognize the wide range of problems and choose the methods best suited to each case.

In your book you argue that the science of animal welfare is not value-free. This is at odds with the view that science is purely “objective”. Can you explain?
As observant people have argued for many years, science is interlaced with human values at every turn. Just as examples, what we choose to study depends on what we think is important; thus scientists began studying topics such as animal welfare, conservation and sustainability when these topics were recognized as important by society and/or by the scientists themselves. Which animals we study also depends on which ones we think are worthy of concern; this is why we study the welfare of pigs but not earthworms even though our agricultural practices harm far more earthworms than pigs. And whether a scientist studies pain and fear, or injuries and illnesses, or the animal’s ability to live as it would choose – these decisions are often underlain by what the scientist thinks is important for the animals.

There are also value systems within science itself. For example, many scientists value experimentation and measurement ahead of naturalistic observation and description. This has a profound influence on the topics scientists choose to study and what conclusions they draw.

The influence of values is especially significant in the study of animal welfare because Western culture, where most animal welfare science developed, actually includes some quite different value systems. These have led to different conclusions about what is important for “quality of life”, whether for humans or for animals. As just one example, values that have been promoted since the Industrial Revolution emphasize good functioning linked to productivity, while those of the Romantic Movement emphasize emotions and naturalness. These different values remain deeply rooted in our culture. To understand animal welfare science, we need to understand how such values influence the science. As the book title implies, we need to see the science “in its cultural context”.