Dr Anne Fawcett is a lecturer at the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is a strong advocate for the welfare of animals used for farming and science.
Would you trust a doctor who happened to also eat people? Not the actual patients who come to see her, just others that have been farmed, pre-prepared into a healthy snack and ready to reheat.
It’s a strange question, but one I asked myself because – as a veterinarian – I can eat animals not all that different from the ones I treat. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a conflict of interest. As someone who has a healing relationship with animals and interacts with them as individuals, can I really be serving the interests of my patients if I am dining on their relatives?
As a Sydneysider I am spoilt for choice when it comes to food, unlike the vast majority of people on the planet. But what I ate wasn’t about considered choice. It was driven by habit, convenience and the daily “I need to eat something now so I can get on with the next thing on my list.” I did not feel I had the time to seek out high-welfare meat, or query the labels on egg or milk packaging.
That changed when I studied animal welfare science.
I rarely meet a human being who doesn’t utter the phrase “I love animals”. But as John Webster, known as the father of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, wrote, “What matters to animals is not what we think and feel, but what we do.”
His point is simple, but powerful: even with the best intentions, we can get it wrong. You might want to provide your pet guinea pig with the biggest possible enclosure, yet overlook the fact that guinea pigs are positively thigmotactic; they like contact with the wall and are terrified in wide-open spaces.
In 2012, I was still a quasi-vegetarian (“Oh, you put bacon in the pasta sauce? Well, it’s already in there so I may as well eat it, since that won’t alter the animal welfare costs …”). That same year a group of eminent neuroscientists gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and signed what was boldly called The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness.
It concluded that we don’t have a monopoly on consciousness. Other animals, not just primates or pets, have the equipment to generate consciousness. The implication of the declaration is that, unless there is compelling evidence for the absence of consciousness, we need to assume that animals are thinking, feeling, to some extent self-aware, beings with emotions and interests.
We derive a lot of benefits from companion animals, laboratory animals, farm animals and animals used in recreation and display. The costs to these creatures is rarely considered, yet as a veterinarian I am confronted with the welfare costs of animal use on a regular basis.
Animal welfare legislation, standards, guidelines and policies are designed to minimise these welfare costs. And it would be great if they could magically make such costs disappear, but they can’t.
Unless there is compelling evidence for the absence of consciousness, we need to assume that animals are thinking, feeling, to some extent self-aware, beings with emotions and interests.
In light of this I’ve been forced to consider the impact of my own behaviour on the welfare of animals. The conservationist Giovanni Bearzi, in his powerful essay When Swordfish Conservation Biologists Eat Swordfish, writes: “We think of ourselves as professionals who are aware of environmental problems and work hard to solve them, but we pay little heed to what we do, buy, and consume.”
For me, I realised there was an inherent conflict of interest in advocating for animals as part of my job, and consuming animal products – knowing the associated welfare costs – between consultations. So I stopped doing the latter.
Australia is indeed a lucky country. Here, many of us are in the lucky position of being able to choose what we buy and consume.
I feel that I have the responsibility, as a scientist, of altering my behaviour in the light of evidence; at least where I may be harming others. And I can easily make choices that reflect my deeper values.
It has been relatively easy for me to choose not to eat meat, and continue to support local producers of high quality food. It strikes me that more and more people are choosing to consume compassionate, sustainable products. And that raises a question worth asking: what differences can you make with your choices?
In this episode of the On My Mind podcast, Dr Anne Fawcett and host Dr Chris Neff discuss the ethics around our interactions with our pets.
Written by Dr Anne Fawcett (BA ’00, BSC(VET) ’03, BVSC ’05, CERTEDSTUD ’14)