The book “Animals Matter” was incredibly frustrating to read. So when I came across another book, “Why Animals Matter” by Marian Stamp Dawkins, I was hesitant to say the least. But by Chapter Two, which was entitled “Seduced by Words”, I had a much better opinion and feeling on the topic.
Where “Animals Matter” discussed animal rights and how we shouldn’t even disturb wild animals with our presence (might as well tell us to off ourselves- for the good of the animals…), “Why Animals Matter” is more centered on animal welfare- providing good care to animals in our lives. And Dawkins in chapter two warns us to not fall victim to the power of words, or to change the dialogue since too many do fall victim. She reasons that the words “vivisection” and “experiment” have bad connotations, regardless if they mean invasive procedures, or taking a small blood sample to study, which for the most part is what animal research entails. “If we are to think clearly about animals and what is best for them and for us, we must make this distinction….We must not be seduced into blurring this distinction by the powerful overtones that words carry or by the slant put on them by the media and campaigners, or anyone with strong views who want to change the way they think.” Dawkins warns all of us of the dangers to not just ourselves, but to the very animals we are trying to protect by letting emotions get the better of our senses. “We do not have words to express what it would be like to have minds that are not like human minds, or emotions that are not like human emotions, or experiences that are conscious but not like human conscious experiences. All we have are words to describe our own human experiences.”
Dawkins in no way is stating that animals do not have emotions. According to scientific studies, emotion consists of three components- bodily changes that occur (heart rate increasing, hormonal changes, etc), behavioral and facial expressions, and conscious experience (what is going on subjectively). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to study whether we share conscious experience with other species, as it is difficult to study whether animals have a conscious. Of course, in my opinion, they do, but it’s difficult to prove with science.
So, the conscious thing can often throw certain people off when it comes to treating animals well. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat them well. Dawkins just shows us what I’ve come to call the “bridge” to important issues. If animal welfare is important to you, you can often make it important to other people by “bridging” it with something important to them. As Dawkins puts it “Tell people that meat is produced in a way that is bad for animal welfare, and they may or may not stop buying it. Tell them that the meat is contaminated and might possibly affect their health, and the likelihood of getting an effective boycott is much higher. A threat of health is more powerful for changing people’s buying or eating habits than what is considered good or bad for animals.” This idea may not jive with animal rights activists. But it jives with a majority of the population, and if we get people to change their behavior by bridging it to something important to them, such as health, then it’s a win-win. “It’s always easiest to persuade people to do something if they see it as being in their own self-interest”.
So, Dawkins sold me on learning how to provide better animal welfare. She finally describes her agenda in “The Pillars of Animal Welfare”. The two pillars are what the animal needs, physical and health, and what the animal wants. There does have to be a balance. Of course, this is not to say if your pet wants more and more food, that you should continue feeding them until they get sick. The balance is that if the animal overeats, it’s unhealthy for them. What the animal needs and what the animal wants can be in sync with each other, or can be out of whack. We, as caregivers and providers, must balance them both equally and provide what is best for the animals.
An example demonstrated is imagine capturing wild migratory birds and providing them with an aviary that meets all their requirements- no predators, large space, plenty of food and shelter, and comfortable temperature. While it can be argued from a human standpoint that welfare improved since many migratory birds don’t survive the hazardous journey, one doesn’t consider the birds’ innate “need” to migrate, onset by the shortening of days. Thus they show signs of “migratory restlessness”- hopping incessantly, agitated flight patterns, and flighty behavior. So, while giving the animal everything it needs, we didn’t consider what their natural behavior, or something they innately want to do. An animal welfare advocate, David Fraser, stated that there are three components of animal welfare- basic health, affective state, and the ability to lead the kind of life for which they are adapted.
The two pillar approach to welfare shows how studies can be successfully carried out without referencing the issue whether animals have a conscious or not. But there does need to be an overhaul of the system and analysis of studying animal welfare. There needs to be better information than is currently available, so it is reliant on what is actually best for the animals and less on what people think is best for animals.
Reading this after the ridiculous narrative of animal rights rhetoric was such a relief. Not that I believe that most people are “siding” with animal rights, but it was worrisome that books are out there to promote that sort of thinking. Animals matter to me, I am constantly fighting to improve conditions for animals and speaking out against animal injustices, and how to improve wildlife conditions with our actions and consumer power. But it was a breath of fresh air to read a book that didn’t tout itself as a “free the animals” propaganda, and looked at the way we treat animals realistically but also optimistically. Improve their lives, and we can improve ours as well. That’s a message I can get behind, and work hard for what matters most to animals- their life, their well-being, and the opportunity to thrive.