Humane Handling of Farm Animals

Humane Handling
By Suzanne B.Bopp (4/15/2010)

Animals deserve humane treatment; that’s what the majority of Americans say, consistently, when asked. And they mean all animals: In a 2004 Ohio State University survey, 81 percent of respondents felt that the well-being of livestock is as important as that of pets.

That’s not surprising, but what do they mean by humane treatment?

The answer will vary widely and is strongly influenced by geography and social norms. “A social scientist would say it’s determined by the society in which we live,” says Michigan State University professor Janice Swanson. “In the United States, it’s under debate; other cultures would have a different answer.”

In this country, when people talk about animals, most are talking about their pets — that’s where their experience of animals comes from. People in agriculture have their own knowledge base that comes from working with animals, Swanson says, and they tend to look at the concept of humane treatment differently.

Minimize suffering

Part of the problem is the wide range of philosophies regarding animals that no amount of science or experience will ever bridge. To people opposed to raising animals for food (or even pets), humane treatment of livestock will remain an oxymoron. But that doesn’t mean the idea has no meaning. “The basic assumption has to be we’re raising large numbers of animals together; we have said farmers can do this for us,” says Nancy Halpern, New Jersey state veterinarian. “Animal-rights groups would not agree.”

If we can start from there, the concept of minimizing suffering seems to be a place to begin to seek common ground when considering humane treatment of animals — that animals are capable of suffering is a point on which many animal scientists and animal-welfare activists agree. The University of Colorado’s Temple Grandin has no doubts; she’s conducted experiments to prove that animal suffering is real. “We did a self-medication experiment on chickens and rodents. They seek pain-relieving medications,” she says. In one study, rats experiencing artificially created arthritis had the choice between two water bottles: one plain and one containing an opiate-based painkiller, which tasted extremely bitter. When the rats were in pain, they chose the bitter water. “When they feel better, they switch to the plain water. There’s no question they can suffer.”

Animals also experience fear. “People call it excitement or agitation,” Grandin says. “But when an animal is having a fit in the squeeze chute, it’s fear. That’s not anthropomorphic. Fear circuits in animals’ brains have been mapped completely. Why didn’t ag see these? Because it’s hidden in neuroscience literature.” Because each science has its own journals, Grandin says, new information can struggle to bridge disciplines, but there have been hundreds of papers on this.

“Animals are capable of suffering,” says Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. “We have an obligation to reduce that no matter what setting they’re in. We take a lot from animals. The least we owe them is to try to minimize the amount of suffering we cause them.”

Swanson agrees. “In the livestock industry, humane treatment means working with animals to minimize their distress during human interactions. It has to do with our responsibility to them,” Swanson says. “They will experience distress  —  we won’t eliminate it  —  but we have to work to minimize it.”

But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and when it comes to our specific interactions with livestock, gray areas still remain. “Some of this gets down to opinion,” Grandin says. “There’s a wide range of things I would label humane. Other people have a narrower range. Everyone will agree on some things — but are feedlots humane or not humane?”

Science and sentiment

Some people say we can know if an animal is suffering by the way it behaves and performs. “If animals do okay, they are okay — that’s accepted among scientists and vets,” Halpern says. “OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) says they go together. I believe it; I know it. But it’s difficult to prove.”

Indeed, there is disagreement. “The claim that animals that do well have good welfare is disputed,” Shapiro says. “The fact that animals may be profitable does not mean good welfare. In fact, hyper-productivity may be the cause of poor welfare.” And because productivity is measured by group, he says, it may actually be declining for the individual, even as the group gets larger and, therefore, more productive.

Swanson looks to a middle ground: Performance is only one piece of the whole welfare pie. “These animals are bred for production; in some cases, they’ll produce even if their welfare is compromised,” she says. “The argument that if animals perform well, they feel well doesn’t always hold up.” She points to laying hens as an example: They can still be productive even when they have broken bones.

That’s why, she says, a multi-disciplinary team is needed to really examine the issue of welfare. “When animals behave abnormally, it’s very apparent. Anyone can see it; that’s why behaviorists were the first to look at these issues,” she says. “Now we’re looking at the entire production system. We’ve gone from being concerned about a specific element and branched out to include more disciplines — animal science, veterinary medicine, even social sciences. There’s more collective intelligence looking at this issue.”

What all this collective intelligence can do effectively is document and describe; that’s the contribution science can make. “We can say what we know,” Swanson says. “Then the issue that comes to the surface is what do we do about it. That involves a value judgment. That’s one reason social science gets involved; there are people studying what humane means for consumers.”

It’s easy for the consumer to get caught up in aesthetics when it comes to thinking about how animals should be raised, but aesthetics can’t provide answers. “People feel better when they see something in a context that creates pleasure for them,” Swanson says. A cow roaming a green pasture can do that; a chicken in a battery cage does not. But that alone is not a basis for an argument. “We’ve got to strip that away and figure out what’s good for that chicken.”

Still, that feeling, which represents a kind of naturalism — the instinct that says domestic animals are the same as, and should live like, wild animals — is strong. (Marian Dawkins, animal behavior professor at the University of Oxford, said this of it: “An unnatural life is not necessarily one of suffering any more than a life in the wild is necessarily free from it.”)

And if one gauge of the strength of that feeling is the number of labels relating to humane handling on animal products, it appears that the feeling is strong indeed. One is the Certified Humane label, founded in 2003 by Adele Douglass through her non-profit organization, Humane Farm Animal Care. Her definition of humane comes from the scientists who wrote her rules. “Humane treatment means it’s certified to a standard written by a group of animal scientists, such as Janice Swanson and Temple Grandin, and refers to studies that support the standards,” Douglass says. “Our standards are endorsed by 35 humane organizations.” Every line in those standards is audited, Douglass says, and her program has been growing in popularity every year.

Douglass created the program because she doesn’t think legislation is the answer. “I used to work in Congress,” she says. “I know how it works. Once it’s law, how can it change? Besides, there’s not enough enforcement. I’m really in favor of the carrot rather than the stick.”

But new regulations may be on the horizon, as the subject of humane treatment draws more and more attention, and industry should be ready and involved in creating them. Animals in zoos and research labs already have regulations governing their treatment, so a framework exists to expand regulations to livestock. “Somebody’s going to make judgments as we get more regulation.  The industry should have some language for it,” Swanson says.

And lawmakers — and consumers — should be wary of making regulations so onerous that producers are unable to stay in compliance, lest they force production out of this country. “I believe that people are concerned, but I also believe that they would prefer to have animals raised in this country,” Halpern says. “With imports, we have very little control over food safety or animal welfare. I think a lot of people don’t think about that.

“People in general want animals to be well cared for. As do I. As do farmers. We just have not found our voice yet that people will listen to.” Nevertheless, it’s a conversation that continues, with farmers or without them.