Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

The Election and animals Part I

The General Election is a time when we need to think about which issues are important to us, and which political parties align with our priorities. For me, one of the issues I’m interested in is animal welfare, having been involved in animal welfare science research for the last four years. I am disappointed however, at the scare-mongering and lack of understanding surrounding animal welfare issues in New Zealand to the point where I think it has now gotten out of hand.

Animal welfare is a massive issue, so rather than try and tackle everything in one go, I have split this blog into three parts which “debunk” misconceptions surrounding animal welfare. This first part will address the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. The next two will focus on understanding how science is conducted and the of the use of animals in science, and lastly look more closely at the issue of intensive farming.

Image courtesy of Animal Agenda Aotearoa

Image courtesy of Animal Agenda Aotearoa

Misconception 1: Animal rights and animal welfare are the same
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that animal welfare is a human construct. This means, as our understanding of the physiology, behaviour, and ecology of animals changes, so too does our understanding of what “good welfare” means.

Without getting too much into the different models of animal welfare, I can tell you that there has been a shift in how we define welfare. Previously, we talked about the “Five Freedoms”, meaning that animals were free from things that caused harm or distress like thirst, hunger, pain. Now, there is a recognition that we not only want to reduce the negative experiences that animals face but also promote positive ones (further reading here and here). Animal welfare is based on science and trying to balance natural instinct and biology with what the animal essentially wants (not always the same thing) and with what is feasible in terms of space and cost.

Animal rights is providing animals with a “voice”. In order for this voice to be effective, it is usually loud, emotional, and oversimplified. Animal rights groups will often offer up the solution of blanket recommendations that don’t require any thinking or weighing-up of priorities, such as banning everything. Unfortunately, it is much easier for this voice to get through to the public, rather than one of a scientist trying to look at the issue objectively.

Part of what I see the solution here being is scientists having a stronger voice when it comes to these issues and these voices being broadcast. I remember when party pill testing on animals was being contested that there was very little (if not no) statement from an animal welfare scientist. This is a huge part of why I wanted to write these blog posts: to start an educated discussion about animal welfare issues. I hope you will take the time to read the next two blog posts, which delve a little deeper into the issues of animals in scientific testing and intensive farming practices.