Animals are people too

Animals are people too

The state of animal welfare

During the recent summer break, I spent many working hours standing at corners of supermarket aisles, trying to sell various superfluous food products. I eventually developed a knack for identifying potential purchasers; my buyers’ trolleys often had one item in common: Free-range eggs. Free-range eggs? Allow me to explain:


My observation may not surprise you; eggs are a popular food item. And most New Zealanders claim that they would be prepared to pay higher prices for free-range rather than caged eggs. Despite this attitude, around 90 per cent of eggs sold in New Zealand are still produced through battery farming. This makes my free-range buyer quite rare indeed!

In light of this, it appears that animal rights activists’ emotive images of scrawny chooks suffering in cages are ineffectual against a desensitised public – or perhaps purchasing habits can be more appropriately blamed on that black-hole of good intentions, otherwise known as the “current economic climate”. Regardless, ethicists argue that moral discussion on the importance of protecting animals’ interests may provide a more positive and powerful response among consumers than upsetting imagery.

Minimum standards for farming egg-laying hens have been outlined in the Animal Welfare Act of 1999. The Act requires that farming systems adapt to match animals’ normal behavioural patterns, because animals suffer when their behavioural needs are “frustrated”.

This means that if for example, a hen wants to sit on her eggs, she should be farmed in a way which allows her to do this. However, what if hens no longer wanted to incubate their eggs? What if it could be the other way around, and theb animals’ behaviour could be altered to match the farming system? The breeding of non-broody hens is one such example of animal selection to improve welfare in current farming systems.

Dr Mike King of the University of Otago’s Bioethics Centre says that “it is suffering that the animal welfarist is most concerned about, and [breeding of non-broody hens] is an example of a change that reduces the suffering of farmed animals.” He also points out that this isn’t a new idea: Humans have trained and selectively bred animals for thousands of years, and many of us aren’t too concerned about this, provided that the animals aren’t suffering. “Good animal welfare is the minimisation of animal suffering.”


So, how would you feel about consuming an egg that was laid by a zombie hen? Such a question quickly prompts a moral standpoint from even the most ethically illiterate consumer. In furthering the idea of selectively breeding chickens, American animal ethicist Bernard Rollin has conceived the ultimate hypothetical scenario of welfare-friendly hen farming: The creation of chickens that experience only the brain activity necessary for them to live and produce eggs.

These “zombie chickens” wouldn’t suffer in battery-farming systems, because they wouldn’t have behaviours that could be frustrated. In fact, regardless of how they’re treated, these hens wouldn’t have the capacity to experience pleasure or pain at all.

Although currently far-fetched, this scenario demonstrates the potential of breeding animals for the purpose of improving their welfare. Before you jump upon your high-horse and cry “yuck!”, it’s important to consider that (from a purely animal welfare viewpoint) this move to alter animals to reduce their suffering is difficult to challenge.


Before we all get nightmares about walking-dead poultry, let’s backtrack to the moral arguments. Thanks to supermarkets’ clean-cut and packaged animal products, it’s easy to miss the pig for the pork-chops, and few of us follow through with our free-range intentions.

Despite this increasing animal-to-food disconnection, a MAF survey released last year ranked animal welfare as the sixth most important socio-political issue to New Zealanders (ahead of both unemployment and climate change). Our relation to and treatment of animals is so intertwined with the way that we conduct our everyday lives – with food, products, language, and our sense of who we are and our place in the world – that people are often disinclined to shift their ethical stance on the matter.


Australian philosopher Peter Singer popularised the term “animal liberation” in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Singer drew parallels between the abolition of slavery, the liberation movement of women, and – the “next logical step in the evolution of our moral sensibility” – the liberation of animals. Human or non-human, says Singer, all animals are equal.

This doesn’t mean that we should allow our cats and dogs to sit at the dining table with us, or that pigs and cows should get the vote. What Singer means is that the interests of animals merit the same consideration as the similar interests of humans. The suffering or pleasure experienced by animals counts just as much as the same amount of suffering or pleasure experienced by humans.

To treat animals as any less morally considerable than humans has been labelled by British animal-liberation activist Richard Ryder as “speciesism”. (“Racism”, “sexism”, “ageism” ... can you see what he did there?)

ANIMAL WELFARE or animal rights?

Dr King’s PhD in Animal Science involved hands-on experience with the applications of animal ethics in animal experimentation. “That got me thinking about the ethics of animal research, and it led me in the end to not be involved in animal research and to be involved in animal ethics instead.”

From the distance that most of us experience such animal welfare issues, he acknowledges that things can appear deceptively simple: “When it comes to these things, you often get people adopting a strong position for and against something. SAFE, for example, have a very hard line on animal welfare, and they do whatever they can to try to promote that. Part of what they do just involves appealing to people’s sentiments.”

“Animal welfare isn’t a radical position. Yes, the like interests of animals and humans are considered equally important, but this doesn’t mean that some interests can’t be sacrificed. Thus, animal welfare doesn’t advocate for entire abolishment of animal experimentation, but would certainly limit it and promote alternatives.”


This idea of limiting research on animals, and of conducting research in an ethically considerate way, is encapsulated by “Three Rs” which serve as guiding principles for the use of animals in research in New Zealand and internationally: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement.

Dr King explains that, “everyone acknowledges that there are differences between animals and humans. But we have very tight restrictions on what we can do to humans. It would of course be beneficial to use humans more in research, but instead we use animals as models and try to make inferences from them that are applicable to humans.”

The issue of animal research is more complex than most of us would care to realise, and as a result it’s far easier just to say “I’m against all animal experimentation” than to acknowledge the nuances of the situation. Many people forget that researchers are also ethically informed individuals, who have professional and moral obligations to promote good as much as possible.

While activists may be busy attacking researchers’ “exploitation” of animals, it’s often forgotten that research on animals can also greatly benefit the species of the animals tested. Additionally, a lot of animal research doesn’t harm animals at all, such as observation studies and low-intervention studies. A blanket ban on research, therefore, seems like a fairly unreasonable stance by animal welfare standards.


The Animal Welfare Act 1999 marks a major milestone in the development of New Zealand’s animal welfare system. Rather than wasting word-space by regurgitating the Act’s interesting but rather lengthy stipulations, I encourage you to check it out for yourself at

Despite the provisions of the Act, many animal rights defenders argue that farm animals, in particular, become the art of compromise. This is because farming often gets special exemptions from the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, because the National Animal Welfare Adivisory Committee “may, in exceptional circumstances, propose minimum standards and recommendations for best practice that do not fully meet the obligations of the Act.” Such exceptions include feasibility and practicality, religious and cultural practices and, of course, economic effects.

This loophole has caused extensive criticism of the Act, particularly from ex-Green Party MP and animal activist Sue Kedgley. As Kedgley puts it, “how is it acceptable that it is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act to keep a companion animal (such as a dog) in a cage, but perfectly acceptable to keep a farm animal (such as a hen or a pig), in a cage for all or most of its life?”. Such questions will hopefully be broached in the full review of the Animal Welfare Act, which began at the end of last year.


So, if enough people benefit from battery farming, and if the harm to animals is minimised, could it be justified? Dr King doesn’t allow room for misinterpretation: “No. It’s not okay. Not every system that has some positive balance of utility is okay, because it could be that you achieve a much greater balance of utility by doing something else.”

Right, so let’s say that a chicken is farmed in a “good” way – as in, its interests aren’t frustrated. Let’s also assume, as many animal scientists do, that it doesn’t have “life plans”, or the capacity for long-term, future-directed interest in continued existence. Unlike us, chickens don’t fall asleep with a “tomorrow’s to-do list” in the back of their mind. Dr King says that “if we look after the chicken well, and kill it in a humane way, then the process seems much less morally troubling.”

Even though a solution to current farming practices is perhaps a long way away, Dr King says that it’s important to “improve welfare as much as we can, and as quickly as we can.”


It all seems like lot of effort, doesn’t it? Honestly, would factory-farmed animals really appreciate a change of surroundings? According to Dr King, it seems that they would. “If you take a pig from a factory-farming situation, and put it in a free-farming situation, it will engage in activities that it wasn’t able to engage in while it was in a confined space. They do have interests which are unable to be expressed in some farming situations.”

Acknowledging a concern for animal welfare, and adjusting our lifestyles in response, is part of being a morally good person. This alone should be motivation enough for us to make an effort to get to know more about humane treatment of animals.

For those of you who read this article simply for the promo-tip of identifying potential product buyers, don’t think that I’ve forgotten to explain my secret. So, why do I rely on free-range eggs as a customer indication? It’s likely that people who can afford to buy free-range eggs are also more likely to make spontaneous, unnecessary purchases. However, it’s not all just about consumerism; the free-rangers also seemed slightly friendlier than the average pre-Christmas supermarket shopper. Stereotypically speaking, I suppose, people who are concerned about animal welfare tend to be caring and thoughtful.

Even the most apathetic of you, therefore, may benefit by concerning yourselves with animal welfare, at least for the sake of your own reputation – let alone for the sake of the animals themselves.
This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2012.
Posted 3:53pm Sunday 15th April 2012 by Katie Kenny.