Old People Make Culture

Human culture fascinates me. I’d like to do more in anthropology, I always enjoy the little snippets I find out as part of my research. Culture amazes me so much because we’re so similar to animals in so many ways, and yet we do things like build skyscrapers, write epic novels, judge each other on how we cook . . .

Some anthropologists think that human culture happened pretty late in our timeline. I came across an article by Laura Helmuth on Slate.com today about how growing old helped us grow a culture. It’s fascinating and well worth a read. I particularly laughed at this excerpt

As Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, one of the reasons the Hundred Years War lasted a hundred years is that repeated plagues killed off anyone, including kings and other established leaders. Again and again, teenagers or very young people inherited the throne and promptly did stupid, aggressive, frontal-lobe-deficient teenage nonsense like invading neighboring countries.

Read the rest here

Why Do We Care About Animal Welfare?

Every so often, usually late at night or early in the morning, when I’m on a farm and I’m cold and miserable, I wonder why we care about animal welfare.

After all, they’re not human. Why do we worry about their lives? Why do we want them to have the freedom from pain, freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear, or the freedom to behave in a natural way?

And we clearly do care about animal welfare. The RSPCA was the 12th most popular UK charity in 2012, if you judge by donations. They surpassed the British Heart Foundation, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Barnardo’s, one of my personal favourite charities. Now, financial spending is a relatively poor way to judge how much a community cares about something (all you need is a few people with big purses and you can earn quite a lot of money without much support at all *insert joke about your least favourite political party*). So how can we appropriately gauge the public’s interest in animal welfare?

Historically, animal welfare legislation in the UK started with the passions of one or two people. In 1822 an MP succeeded in having  the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ passed by the House of Commons. Somewhat predictably, the wording quickly needed amending to make sure people realised when they said ‘cattle’ they also meant bulls. Politics.co.uk has an interesting history of animal welfare legislation. Note how this MP went on to form the RSPCA (after receiving Queen Vic’s patronage).

More recently, many people talk about Ruth Harrison’s ‘Animal Machines’ opening their eyes to how our food is produced. Here we begin to see something more tangible. The change in consumer practices shows that consumers are willing to pay for animal welfare (Verbeke & Viaene, 2000) and that consumer choice is affected by many different things: the information they receive on animal welfare, the taste of a product (Napolitano et al 2008), how they feel about their own health and, importantly, because they place a value on animal welfare (Blokhuis et al 2003).

This concern for animal welfare therefore must exist in society, enough to change our consumer habits in measurable ways, but why?

We have a bond with animals which forms at some point in our lives. Think about yourself. When did you first realise you cared about animal welfare? Was it when the family dog sat beside you at the dinner table and gave you big, sad eyes because it wasn’t getting any food and your dinner smelled so good? And you realised that this dog, your playmate, your friend, wanted something? Think how difficult a concept that is for a child to grasp, that something other than themselves wants something. Think how amazing it is that they can grasp this about a ‘something’ which can’t even speak, or share our facial expressions.

In 2003, Melson wrote a paper about the relationship between child development and the human-animal bond. It opens with three quotes demonstrating the capacity have for caring, but also their capacity for cruelty. It’s a fascinating paper and I think it’s a strong argument for more research into this area. She talks about research that shows children with pets show more informed reasoning of the natural world, the social support children get from their pets, and most importantly – how it teaches them to care.

We’ve all heard our parents say it “Getting a dog/cat/pony/dragon is a big responsibility, are you sure you’re ready for it?” Most likely our parents knew full well they would be the one getting up in the mornings. And of course it’s usually the parents who make the final decision, regardless of how responsible the children are. Still this phrase is somewhat of a right of passage, a declaration that pet-owning is a responsibility. We accept there is a moral duty to owning a pet.

Yes there are some people who don’t care about animal welfare. But there are some people who don’t care about human welfare either. In fact, the relationship between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans might be the key to explaining why we care about animal welfare.

Daly & Morton (2008) asked a group of students how they felt about watching animals being killed. Unsurprisingly they were discomforted by it, but those who were more empathetic (including women, as they tend to score higher on empathy scores), and those who were more likely to relate to fictional characters, liked it least. The question of ‘why are we an empathic species?’ is  a slightly different topic, fascinating, but for another post. The point here is that empathy allows us to care about animal welfare.

Arluke et al (1999) used the term ‘graduate’ to describe how people move from committing animal cruelty to violent crime, because animal cruelty is a form of training. Lacking the empathy to appreciate how hurting an animal is wrong is a fairly good indicator of whether someone will go on to hurt people (although Arluke et al are quick to point, and I should be too, that animal cruelty does not always lead to violent crime). Most horrible of all, prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes who have been exposed to and sometimes participated in animal abuse as children were also often abused through childhood (Miller & Knutson, 1997).

Sometimes in discussing animal welfare we get very caught up in issues such as animal consciousness, whether animal can feel pain, or to what extent we should be legislating all of this. It’s important sometimes to step back and to question why we care – especially as there’s so little research on it. But it’s equally important to note that all the research we do have shows us that caring about animals is an important part of being human, about growing up human, and about caring for other humans.

So if, over Christmas, you feel a little caught up in all the commercialism and you get to wondering about the size of the turkey on the dinner plate, take heart. You’re only wondering because you’re human. And it’s human to care.

How To Read Science News – It’s Okay To Be Smart

The science blogger Joe Hanson has uploaded a video on ‘how to read science news’. I definitely recommend watching it.

His first two points pertain to aspects of journalism that very few people get – print journalists do not choose their headlines or even their bylines. I’d also argue that we scientists ask for press releases because we want to communicate our science, rather than free advertising. And he’s clearly never submitted a paper to some of the conferences I’ve been at, where peer review is more rigorous than some journals I know, but apart from all that it’s still a very interesting watch. Take it as a guide.

And maybe in the future we can cut out the middle man – come to the scientists for your science news. If they’re like me, they might even be blogging about it!

FameLab 2014 – The Mystery of Pets

Earlier this year I entered FameLab 2014, a competition where scientists speak for about 3 minutes on a topic of their choice. The scientists have to be engaging, to speak in an understandable manner, and most importantly – they have to teach their listeners something about science.

I entered the Edinburgh heat and it was hugely enjoyable. The public speaking training at the start was some of the most valuable I’ve ever received and listening to the talks was also great fun. I didn’t succeed in that heat, but the organisers were very keen for me to submit a video entry.

Being the kind of prideful Scot whose nose gets put out of joint quite easily, I wasn’t going to submit a video entry until I started this blog. Since you have to enter via YouTube, I figure you guys might like to see my entry even if it doesn’t get any further.

Without further ado, I present: Pets Are Weird!

Safer Food – Part Two

This week I helped out at a training course helping veterinary inspectors understand the EU legislation on the welfare of chickens.

Animal welfare research informs the legislation which goes on to protect the welfare of the animals. This is assessed via welfare quality measures (such as the Welfare Quality® Protocol) by inspectors. Veterinary inspectors need an understanding of the legislation, of the research backing the legislation, of the pressures the industry is under, and the value society places on welfare. This course brought veterinary inspectors together with Competent Authorities, scientists and government representatives to discuss the welfare of broilers and layers, particularly with regards to the new ban on barren cages for layers.

Did you know that the chickens we eat are not the chickens who lay our eggs? We refer to meat chickens as broilers and egg chickens as layers. We have heavily selected for different strains of birds, broilers gain weight very quickly (sometimes too quickly) and layers unsurprisingly produce many eggs. Chicken breeding companies even have their own patented breeds for slightly different production systems. This may seem ‘unnatural’ at first glance but selecting for production is an integral part of agriculture, this is how we domesticated animals in the first place!  One possible method for improving welfare in the future would be to incorporate welfare traits into selection. For example we could ensure a broiler breed is not only selected for good weight gain but also behaviours suited to the broiler management system. While this is just one tool we can use to help welfare, it’s one that could improve the lives of many birds.

If you’re in the UK and interested in keeping chickens you can adopt former layers – check out Little Hen Rescue or the British Hen Welfare Trust for more information.

One aspect of the discussion I found very interesting was how different countries felt the legislation fell in with their current practices. For example, Scotland plans to review beak trimming in 2016, while Denmark never beak trims and Austrian farmers can beak trim but they have to get veterinary dispensation to do so. There are also differences in how countries interpret more ambiguous parts of the legislation, for example Scotland treats enriched cage definitions slightly differently from England and Wales.

One of the EU directives was concerned with housing laying hens in enriched (or furnished) cages. This is essentially the banning of battery cages, which are banned in the EU from 2012. Enriched cages, while still very far from the mental picture one has of a traditional chicken shed, have perches, nesting facilities, and places to scratch and peck. While lighting conditions, beak trimming and social stress still exist, it’s a step in the right direction.

Lastly, there was wide agreement that it was the consumer who drives changes in farm practices. For example, the UK now farms approximately half its eggs from barn or free range systems, a massive change from 20 years ago. I come away with the impression that transparency in the market is necessary. There were many reports of enriched cage builders taking somewhat looser interpretations of the legislations (you’d never imagine there could be disagreement over ‘what is a perch’) and insist to farmers they are producing legislation compliant cages. It’s important that consumers continually ask where their food comes from and to understand how it is produced for the industry to achieve the high standards of health and welfare we would like to see.


If you live in the UK or US you’re running out of excuses not to watch the documentary Blackfish. It’s had a cinematic release and been shown on the BBC, as well as being available on iTunes.

For the uninitiated, Blackfish is the story of an orca who recently killed its trainer at SeaWorld. As a result, SeaWorld trainers were prohibited from entering the water with the animals.

When I’m not slaving away over a hot computer screen and working on my next paper, I am a bit of a film geek. In fact I wrote the first draft of this post before heading to my monthly film pub quiz (we lost). Blackfish is a truly brilliant documentary. It takes you an emotional journey, is beautifully structured, and paints the orca, Tilikum, as a flawed, sympathetic character. I love it as a film.

But we’re scientists! Let’s take a critical look at the concept of keeping orcas in captivity. As I have access to scientific papers, I decided to do a short review of the literature. When talking about science I think it’s important to cite your sources (and no doubt I’ll say this many times in future) so I will link to papers. Unfortunately some of them, if not most, will be behind a paywall.

I wrote this post over a number of days, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive literature search. This is the kind of literature search I’d do if someone asked me what I thought of orcas in captivity.

So what did I find out?

Continue reading “Blackfish”

Learning About Pain in Animals

Today the AWIN project released five online learning objects on their Animal Welfare Hub. I have to confess an ulterior motive to sharing these: I had a hand in creating them.

The Animal Welfare Hub requires registration, but it’s free and once registered you can find animal welfare courses online, download learning objects, and share your own events, courses and materials. It’s designed to be your one stop shop for animal welfare resources.

The learning objects I’m sharing today are about animal pain. They’re aimed at vet nurse students, vet students, and as some refresher training for vets and vet nurses, but the beautiful thing about learning objects is that anyone can access them. You can take them at your own pace. You don’t need to read all the information present, and can direct your own learning.

By having these learning objects online we can also reach a global audience. Supplying the 7 billion with animal products (everything from meat, eggs, dairy, leather, etc.) results in a huge demand for animals. It’s more important than ever to share animal welfare knowledge between countries so we can learn from one another.

Anyway – first you have to make an account on the Animal Welfare Hub and then you can follow the direct links below to check out the learning objects. They can be downloaded and used for education, so long as you say where you got them from. Hopefully you’ll find them useful, and let us know any feedback you have.

1. What is animal pain?

2. How is pain produced?

3. How is pain assessed?

4. How is pain treated?

5. Attitudes to animal pain.