ONE of the key elements of animal welfare science commonly misunderstood is that it is the animal's perception of its conditions that counts, not those of humans.
So says one of the country's leading experts in the field, Warrnambool veterinarian and senior lecturer in cattle medicine at Melbourne University Dr David Beggs.
The differences between animal welfare and animal ethics - and where the biggest challenges to livestock production may lay with the latter - was explored by Dr Beggs in a recent episode of the RawAg podcast produced by southern seedstock operation Te Mania Angus.
Dr David Beggs, who has a PhD in animal welfare, said animal welfare was, by definition, how an animal was coping with the conditions in which it lives and as such scientists 'spend a lot of time and effort trying to get inside the heads of animals.'
That's vastly different to animal ethics, which is how humans feel about what we do with animals - whether they should be raised to be eaten, for example, he said.
"The classic view of an animal scientist is that a dog being bred for food in Vietnam has exactly the same animal welfare requirements as a lap dog in Toorak," Dr Beggs said.
"Both need a good life and a humane death.
"Whether or not you think it's ok to rear dogs for food, or to eat whales, or indeed to eat cattle - the animals still have these same requirements.
"In animal welfare science, the timing of death isn't the issue, it's the nature of it.
"If an abattoir calls up and says we can't take your sheep this week, can we make it next week instead, there tends not to be a big celebration about the fantastic animal welfare outcome that these animals lived another week.
"It's how we look after animals during their life and how their life ends that is important from a welfare point of view."
Question of suffering
One of the more interesting learnings of modern animal welfare science is that it's erroneous to argue animals should never suffer.
"It's not the case that humans never suffer," Dr Beggs said.
"Animals will have days when they are too hot, times when they are hungry, periods when they are unwell. What we need to do is prevent unnecessary suffering because some suffering is necessary."
As an example, he was asked whether it was ethical to attempt to rehabilitate injured wildlife.
"Firstly, euthanasia would be a perfectly good welfare outcome but if a rehabilitation path was chosen, it could prove unpleasant for the animal, especially where they have never had contact with humans," Dr Beggs said.
"But in this case, it's necessary suffering with the end game being to release a healthy animal back into the wild."
Wildlife could be said to experience relatively bad welfare on the whole, he said.
"Not many birds die in their nest surrounded by loving family - nearly all animals in the wild die of starvation, predation or disease," Dr Beggs said.
"If those animals were in our care, we would not call their deaths humane.
"Animals in the custody of farmers may have way better welfare outcomes than those in the wild."
What they don't have large amounts of is agency - the ability to direct their own fate - and that's where the concept of welfare and ethics becomes blurred.
"Humans think freedom is an important thing and will die for it," Dr Beggs explained.
"So we tend to anthropomorphize that onto animals.
"To a degree, agency does affect welfare. We know zoo animals confined with nothing to do suffer stress from that situation.
"But animals able to wander a paddock at will and forage for food, able to decide which other animals they interact with, are a different case.
"The extent to which we can give animals what they need on a farm is pretty good and may well be better than that which wild animals, and even some people, experience."
Raised for a purpose
The ethical discussion around whether an animal should have existed in the first place also appears to be gaining more and more traction.
Dr Beggs presented an interesting way to look at the argument that humans should not produce an animal for the sole purpose of feeding other humans.
Canola or almond crops make no room for animals, he said. They flower for a month and then not for eleven months. No wonder the bees die. Birds living where they are grown starve because there are no insects for them to eat.
"The biodiversity able to occur with rangeland farming is so much better than that in cropping," he said.
"So is it better to produce food for people from something that has prevented wildlife from existing at all or to produce an animal for eventual slaughter and raise it humanely?"
His advice for livestock producers: Continual improvement in animal welfare and transparency around the risks and the way those risks are managed.
Research suggests most consumers, and large parts of society, want to be able to trust that animals are well cared for, he said.
Building that trust requires a flow of information that can't occur when a combative approach is taken.
The first hurdle to overcome is the recognition that other people's ethical views are valid, Dr Beggs believes.
"If someone genuinely believes humans shouldn't eat meat, we need to respect it - we don't need to change their mind. We don't try to convince someone not to barrack for Collingwood, do we?
"Most problems in the world arise when people say you don't think the way I do, you have to change.
"And likewise, people who don't wish to eat the products of our farms also need to accept that others do."
In the research and development arena, creating a single animal wellbeing index easily captured and easily measured was the focus, Meat & Livestock Australia's manager of productivity and animal wellbeing David Beatty said.
Speaking at a resilience webinar in November, Mr Beatty said the research work in animal wellbeing was evolving and moving quickly.
"We have the ability now to look at remote sensing and capture animal behaviour," he said.
"We have a range of projects looking at objective measures of animal welfare and there is work around repurposing pain relief products in the human field.
"We have the traditional understanding of physiological responses to distress and pain.
"The challenge is to utilise all of that to create a single animal wellbeing index, potentially taken at the time of slaughter."
The ultimate aim, he said, was to be able to account for all factors influencing an animal's lifetime wellbeing to underpin Australia's global positioning as a leader in animal welfare.
In presenting an overview of current research activities, Mr Beatty said pain management had been an ongoing focus in the animal wellbeing program.
Examples of work included the development of new and better drugs for pain relief, oral rather than injectable forms of anti inflammatory medicines and multimodal actions of pain relief or products that can be longer acting.
On the vaccine front, single shot long acting anti-fertility vaccine work is underway.
Work is also happening around Johne's disease, a pink eye vaccine and tick vaccine efficacy.
Biosecurity was a key part of the port folio too, Mr Beatty said.
"It's not just exoctic diseases and maintaining our market access with freedom from things like foot and mouth disease and African swine fever," he said.
"Biosecurity is about controlling endemic diseases too and our focus has been on dogs, pigs, weeds and feral cats."