Over the past decade I’ve been on the frontline of some interesting animal welfare discussions. I was part of the team that drafted the WVMA’s original five guiding principles for food animal welfare that were adopted in 2008. In December 2013 Mercy for Animals released a video of improper handling of disabled dairy cows from a northeastern Wisconsin dairy farm. In response to that, I made over 20 presentations for the WVMA in 2014 across the Midwest educating producers about humane handling of down and disabled dairy cows. In 2010, the arrival of HSUS at the WVMA’s doorstep inquiring about our support for legislation banning dairy cow tail docking set off a flurry of activity to draft a position on that issue. It was the dairy cow tail docking debate that really opened my eyes to the complexity of engaging in meaningful discussions with farmers and colleagues about animal welfare issues.
At the root of the difficulty engaging in these discussions is the delicacy at which we handle exchanges of our moral consciousness. The Judo-Christian teaching in Genesis that god has given man dominion over all the creatures of the earth establishes a firm ethos for kind care and oversight of animals. In our daily lives the care, management, and treatment of animals fulfills that moral obligation subconsciously. Good animal care becomes one of our core moral bearings.
This dimension of animal welfare dialogue came to light to me as I was engaging in various conversations in the spring of 2010 with dairy farmer clients about tail docking. In private, one on one conversation, I could sense a bit of unease with farmers when we spoke about the tail docking issue. That March, I was asked to give an update on animal welfare concerns for the local Technical College Farm Class awards dinner which gave me a chance to test the idea of the connection between moral consciousness and animal welfare. I knew at least eighty percent of the farmers in the audience that evening. I had enough experience with the audience that they trusted me, and I was considered part of their “tribe”. We had shared experiences and values. I started my presentation with two questions. First: How many here believe they have a moral/ethical responsibility to provide good, kind, humane care to their animals? Everyone’s hand went up. Second question: How many here believe they fulfill that responsibility? Again, everyone raised his or her hand. This clearly demonstrated the connection of animal care practices to core moral beliefs.
Rarely, if ever, do we discuss core religious beliefs. We respect each other’s decisions, realizing that while we might have slight differences, we are all of good moral character. However, when someone, especially those we don’t have much in common with, questions our management or treatment of animals, it is easy to be insulted. It is not a superficial insult either, rather a deep cutting one because it calls into question our moral under-pinning. Animal welfare discussions can easily pierce the shell of our inner moral core, often eliciting a deep visceral emotional response. As this emotional defense response kicks in, logical thought processes evaporate. Effective listening frequently shuts down.
Therefore, great care needs to be taken when engaging in animal welfare discussions not to offend the other in the conversation. It is very helpful to try to find some areas of agreement before getting into the specifics of the topic at hand.
When morality issues are challenged, it is common to seek affirmation and support from our “tribe”. A common response to criticism of animal care is: “we’ve always done it this way”. Citing precedent is not justification for our questioned care or procedures, rather it is the reason the discussion is occurring. By acknowledging that the questioned practice was once considered an acceptable standard practice, one can gain credibility in the “tribe” and we can open the door to more logical conversations. Making this connection is crucial to moving the conversation forward in a constructive way.
Interestingly, three years later, in 2013, when I repeated the fore mentioned question sequence at an Extension sponsored animal well-being meeting, very few people raised their hands in response to the questions, which initially surprised me. After reflecting on the situation, I realized that very few in the audience knew me. I was a stranger. Rarely do we expose our core beliefs to strangers. It is easy to intimidate others when engaging, especially if they are strangers.
Here are some tips when having discussions about animal welfare. First familiarity is critical; try to establish a “tribal” connection. Sharing experiences and values goes a long way to keep communication going. Be very tactful, and recognize the non-verbal signals you receive and send. Be careful not to elicit an emotional response. Encourage the other person to share their experiences, thoughts and perspective. Listen, listen, and listen. Conversations about animal welfare are best done one on one. Opening minds to new ideas one by one will slowly move the animal welfare needle. Those new ideas and perspectives will slowly spread through the “tribe” in other one on one conversation.
As veterinarians, we have much to offer the conversation. The best opportunity to move animal welfare issues forward is to engage and make a difference.