Free range thinking

July 14, 1995

John Webster believes we spend too much time talking about animal rights and too little minimising animal suffering. Aisling Irwin met him

What kind of man can hold, simultaneously, the following two views: that vegetarians can be misguided because they "merely change the method of death" of the animals they do not eat; but that a farmer who gives her cattle "pre- slaughter counselling" is morally courageous?

The man is John Webster, a pragmatist who thinks that we should concentrate more on alleviating the suffering of animals and less on speculating about issues of which they are unaware, such as their moral status. Head of veterinary science at Bristol University, he is bored with the moral philosophers and their endless discussions about animal rights.

Take, for example, the problem of man's dominion over animals. There are vexed historical and philosophical questions about why we consider them to be our possessions and how we can alter our attitudes. Webster cuts through these questions with the observation that, in practice, "man has dominion over the animals whether we like it or not". He says in his book, Animal Welfare, A Cool Eye Towards Eden, published this month: "Today we have complete dominion - sufficient power to destroy the majority of species of 'higher' animals but sufficient wealth to allow us to behave towards them with responsibility and altruism".

Webster has similar impatience with the problem of whether we should take the life of a sentient animal, an impatience that was visible years ago on a televised panel discussion about man's inhumanity to other animals.

Webster, an energetic man, screws up his eyes and says: "The discussion got bogged down for 20 minutes on 'have we got the right to kill animals?' I was getting seriously fed up with the self-indulgence of these moral philosophers because nothing they said was going to be of any help to any animal ever." His irritated, flippant reply to their arguments earned him a letter bomb a few days later.

But the bombers had ignored his compassion: Webster's argument is that all animals are destined to die. Bringing the lives of non-human animals to an early end does not harm them because "they do not live in chronic metaphysical fear of death as an end to existence". Instead we should be worried about the pain itself; the terrifying journeys to the slaughter house. That is why he praises the counsellor-farmer, who leads her cattle smoothly from life, through unconsciousness, to death.

Webster's message is that science can give powerful insights into animals' feelings. It is possible to peel away layers of anthropomorphism and find out about their needs and wants, including complex issues such as whether they get bored or whether they are upset when one of their group dies. We can, in fact, ask animals what they want.

Webster has spent his life criss-crossing the borders of veterinary science, farming and academia, ending up as professor of animal husbandry at Bristol. His experiences have hardened him to death but opened his eyes to suffering. He pursues a kind of ruthless compassion as he obeys his motto: "It doesn't matter (to the animal) what we feel; it matters what we do".

He works energetically for his cause. He jets to Brussels to work to humanise the veal trade. He gives lecture after lecture - to farmers, to the Women's Farming Union and Soroptimists, "the people who nag MPs".

Webster's book is a wealth of readable and ingenious research into animal suffering. He describes work pioneered by Marion Dawkins, who has used economic theory to work out what sentient animals value. By placing obstacles between an animal and some commodity she can measure how hard the animal is prepared to work for it. For example, one scientist has measured that a hen will walk up to 1.5km to reach a nesting box - in contrast they will not expend any energy to reach a dust bath.

The experiments have become sophisticated. They measure the balance that sentient animals keep between hunger, thirst, exhaustion, cold. They measure the wide variety of behaviours that are classically associated with frustration. "Stereotype" behaviours, for example, such as the pacing of wild cats back and forth in their cages, can demonstrate that many animals do not just require the basics such as food and water but also need "an opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the quality of their own existence". "Rebound" behaviour, which happens when an animal is allowed to do something that it has been prevented from doing, is used for studying welfare problems in battery hens when they are suddenly given more space.

There is a propaganda trap that is used by both sides of the animal welfare debate: they promote or criticise a single issue, such as space or hunger, while ignoring all the other ways in which the animal may be suffering - or may be content. To avoid this, welfare thinkers have devised the "five freedoms", which they use to assess welfare. They are freedoms from: thirst, hunger and malnutrition; discomfort; pain, injury and disease; fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviour.

Intriguing findings follow from this catholic approach. An example is the comparison between battery and free range hens. Battery hens rate adequately or above for hunger and thirst, thermal comfort and disease. But they rate badly on physical comfort, pain, freedom to express normal behaviour and stress. Commercial free range hens, which live in groups of 2,000 rather than their natural groupings of about six, can rate badly on disease and pain; and they regularly suffer from agoraphobia.

Webster writes: "Let me reassure those who wish to see a ban on the battery cage that I too think it is unacceptable in its present form". But he argues that an altered cage would be more humane than commercial free range systems. "The discovery that hens suffer from agoraphobia illustrates the dangers of introducing anthropomorphism into the evaluation of animal welfare.

Paradoxes flow from studying the five freedoms. Deer stalking is humane - except that Scottish highland deer are not in their natural climate and 50 per cent of newborn calves can die through starvation and cold. The solution is a slightly more intensive form of ranching, says Webster. Hunting with hounds, however, lands squarely on the side of cruelty.

For angling, research shows that: "The hooked fish experiences sensations for which we have no better words than fear and pain". But on modern methods of whaling Webster says that the pain, fear and stress are far less than for most forms of sport killing (although he acknowledges that most arguments against whaling hinge on issues of ecology and sentience).

For those who condemn ritual slaughter, in which the throat of an animal is slit without prior stunning, Webster says "the main problem faced by all animals within slaughterhouses is not pain but fear". Thus, "the difference between conventional and ritual slaughter is one of relatively minor degree".

Webster tucks happily into a meat chilli at lunch, while his interviewer eats vegetarian stroganoff. He will eat pheasant but refuses broiler chickens, many of which live in chronic pain because they have been genetically selected to mature extremely early and therefore their muscles are far too heavy for their frames. The treatment of broiler chickens and turkeys is "the single, most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal", he says.

Nobody has to eat broiler chickens: there are alternatives in most supermarkets. It is the fact that most people nevertheless do not switch that frustrates him: "The public is far more concerned by animal welfare than it ever used to be. However the behaviour of the public bears no relation to what they say. All the supermarkets are producing quality-assured products. But the market penetration doesn't reach ten per cent."

Perhaps this is where the moral philosophers come in. They might say that this consumer stubborness could be untangled by them, if only Webster would ask for help. The Rev. Andrew Linzey, who holds a fellowship in theology and animal welfare at Mansfield College, Oxford University, says: "John Webster's work trying to alleviate the suffering of farm animals is morally very worthy but it doesn't go far enough. Farm animals have become machines, and this is now backed by the biotechnology industry. Fundamental ethical questions have to be asked and he does not give animals a new ethical status.

"Webster assumes that all his work is value-free - the truth is that science is not neutral. I'm not of course denying that moral judgements about animals must be empirically informed."

Nevertheless there is something deliciously clean-cut about Webster's belief that science can sweep us out of anthropomorphism and into the sentient animal, with a resulting vision of what causes suffering and what does not.

Equally attractive in its simplicity is his main solution to the welfare problems caused by intensive farming. Webster wants Europe to alter its agricultural subsidies, which provide 42 per cent of farmers' incomes, so that they encourage more humane farming methods. Farmers could receive payments if their animals were killed within 100km of where they were reared, which would discourage the live export trade.

Webster aims to untangle compassion from squeamishness, to avoid the erratic way in which we distribute our sentiments to different animals. He dedicated his book to Cordelia, his daughter's pet rat. Her photogenic cuteness challenges our traditional hatred of rats as well as illustrating more complex points about the responsibilities we have towards animals we domesticate. But Cordelia also provided the first test of Webster's attitudes: with a delicate sense of timing, she died 15 minutes after he finished his book.

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