Apart From Providing Food and Fabric, Do Animals Matter?
Opinions on this subject vary widely. Ethical positions on animal welfare sometimes seem as diverse as the people holding them. The increasing power of those (mainly urbanites), who demand submission to their ever-louder cries for “better” treatment of animals is obvious. Whether or not these debates rage, should Christians care about the “plight” of animals? And if so, in what way?
In this brief article I hope to demonstrate that there is both explicit and implicit biblical imperative for us to care about animals’ food, shelter, health and overall environment – not least because they are fellow creatures, and thus God cares for them. I also want to clarify that even though some of those seen to be on the “loony left” are there because of a genuine desire to improve the lot of animals, they may also be driven there by others’ bad behaviour towards animals. Aspects of their cries really are worth taking note of for ethical reasons. Whilst it is true that extreme views often get more media coverage, and that what some require is fundamentally unrealistic and economically impossible, welfare of animals is, nonetheless, a biblical imperative for us to practise. The fact that good animal welfare often has positive economic benefits is incidental to this discussion.
As a farmer I regularly have to make compromises – time vs money. Do I have the ewes mated to lamb earlier, thereby subjecting the lambs to greater risks of hypothermia – or later, when drought can pose a problem? Do we shear in winter – thereby increasing feed intake and storm risk, and reducing metabolic disorders – or in summer, when the weather is more clement but fly strike is also more of a problem? Do I put a lot of straw in a farrowing (“birthing”) hut for sows, ensuring that it is warm and snug, or do I minimise the straw with newborns so that they don’t get tangled in the straw and are laid on by the sow as she lies down? Where is the welfare trade-off? In many ways these types of decisions a farmer makes are no different than those we all have to make in life, e.g. do we wrap our children in cotton wool, or do we give them freedom to climb rather challenging trees, swim with their friends in the river, ride their bikes down precarious banks and the likes?
Animal welfare is not about making life for animals perfect in this imperfect world. It is about taking all due care to ensure that stress, fear and discomfort are minimised for the animals that we are responsible for. I don’t want to put myself forward as a pillar of virtue in this regard. Even so, I hope I am getting better at making life for our animals as welfare-friendly as I am able.
One of the more moving images the Lord Jesus gave to his disciples to reduce their fears is recorded in His Sermon on the Mount:
Matt 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?
27 “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?
28 “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,
29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.
30 “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!
31 “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’
32 “For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Because God Himself cares for the birds and the lilies, I should be careful how I treat His other creatures.
From earliest times the Lord has instructed us to look after the animals. The creation mandate requires us to:
have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28
Rather than this giving us carte blanche liberty to do whatever we wish with the created order God has given us the responsibility to look after it well. Using what He has made well, definitely, and not abusing or misusing the land, the waters, the plants, the air or the animals. Further, in the fourth of the Ten Commandments the beasts of burden were to be given a Sabbath rest, even as man was (Ex. 20; Deut. 5). The Hebrews were told not to “muzzle the ox” whilst it “threshed the grain” (Deut. 25:4). Later again, in the Proverbs:
A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel. Proverbs 12:10
Fairly rapidly, one gains the idea that God’s Word teaches clearly that He requires man to look after the animals. If a man is righteous he will do so. Even the unusual account of Balaam in Numbers 22 leaves us with no doubt that Balaam’s recklessness, even extended to his donkey, is the reason he is humiliated and shamed, and incurs the Lord’s judgement.
How many of us have cause for sorrow and shame when we review some of the things we have done with and to animals over the years? If only their helplessness, dependence, and in the case of some species, their devotion and reliability, wrought in us some pity.
So, for those of us involved in the keeping of animals, what is it that enables us to have both a proper view of how to look after them, and keeps us motivated to meet those goals? And, to diverge briefly, what limits this consideration to domestic, or kept animals, only? Surely feral species also require mercy and humane treatment?
To get a couple of points out of the way first will be helpful. First, economic considerations ought not to be the primary consideration. Some have the view that it is impossible to maximise profit from animal production without it being in the animals’ interests to be kept in optimal welfare environments. Often profits are maximised in high welfare environments, but it is not always the case. Second, because an animal has “always” been kept in a certain way, it doesn’t make it right or good. Of course we can all point to the more publicly chastised examples like foie gras production. Others will point to the use of sow stalls and battery cages for laying hens. Whatever the example, unless the case is irrefutably one of neglect or cruelty there will be a range of opinion as to what is acceptable or not.
The NZ statute requires that five needs be provided by those attending to or caring for animals:
- Proper and sufficient food and water
- Adequate shelter
- The opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour
- Physical handling in a way that minimises the likelihood of unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress
- Protection from, and rapid diagnosis of, any significant injury or disease.
Most Christians would, I think, agree that these principles are substantially consistent with God’s Word. The only one over which there could be much debate is the third. What is a normal behaviour pattern? How do we establish how important that is? Ought we to anthropomorphise – that is, view animals’ needs and desires as though they were human, or through human lenses? For example, caged or penned animals often exhibit stereotypical (fixed, repetitive actions) behaviour patterns. Most behavioural scientists believe that these behaviours reflect sub-optimal welfare conditions, at least for the psyche of the animals. Should a farmer who observes stereotypical behaviour in his pigs immediately take radical, high-cost remedial action or give up farming? What he does will be partly determined by how serious and extreme the behaviour is, and whether there is a known solution to the behaviour. One of the situations in pig farming where stereotypical behaviour is observed is housing sows in dry sow stalls. For many years a large number of pig farmers believed this was the only way to keep sows profitably, and in optimal safety and condition. NZ public opinion forced farmers who farmed this way to take the initiative and move away from dry sow stalls. In fact, in NZ from December 2012, all dry sow stalling of sows from day 28 after mating will be stopped in all herds that are welfare-accredited. Farmers, for the most part, have now got used to the idea, and have found that the move has not been as painful as they feared. Some report that they are pleasantly surprised at how well the changes have gone, while others think that the perceived welfare improvements from lack of confinement have been reduced by group-housed sows being aggressive and sometimes wounding each other.
So, we ought to ask the question as to how, in a fallen world, animals are to enjoy a reasonably high welfare environment. Hopefully most animal keepers are interested in caring for those animals well. Notwithstanding, a good deal of ignorance, rather than malice, in some quarters, results in sub-optimal environments for animals. Pig and poultry farmers have had quite a lot of criticism in this country for some years, so we’ll look at a dairy example. When cows are calving in a blustery, sleety sou’wester, their hormone levels are all topsy-turvy and feed intakes at that time may be reduced, farmers can’t just say that the cow’s rumen is a little furnace that will keep her warm, so “she’ll be right”. Especially in times of stress or pressure, the cow needs shelter, and some TLC! Not all farmers seem to realise this. So, various governments have taken action to try and prevent people from keeping animals in poor conditions – not just limited to cows, pigs and chooks either.
The NZ Parliament passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1999 to enshrine in law a duty of care responsibility for all animal owners, along with the continued powers to protect animals from abuse and neglect. The Act is designed to cover all animals that are capable of feeling pain. Whilst the Act primarily addresses production, research and companion animals, wild animals are not exempt from protection under the Act. Thus, it is an offence to use inhumane methods for hunting or pest control. As an example, I was at a recent meeting with MPI (Ministry for Primary Industry) officials who are working on updating the Act. One rural attendee argued that there is nothing wrong with drowning cage-trapped possums as this is how some “have always done it” and it is “awkward to deal otherwise to them”. That he had few supporters to his idea takes nothing away from the point that there is a great diversity of view as to what is good welfare and what is not.
Initiatives resulting from the Animal Welfare Act of 1999, to both encourage and direct farmers to look after their animals well, have resulted in various welfare codes being developed in NZ. For example the poultry, dairy and pig codes of welfare are substantial, recent documents that give minimum standards, best practice and other general information on the various aspects of husbandry, health, nutrition, the environment in which the animals are kept; and deals with the handling and transportation of those species. These documents which are issued by the Minister for Primary Industries (formerly the Minister of Agriculture), have substantial legal muscle, even though the documents themselves were formulated under the provisos of the Animal Welfare Act, rather than being independently legislated themselves.
Currently the MPI is looking to supersede the various Codes of Welfare with specific legislation that officials believe will make it easier to penalise people in cases of neglect or cruelty. There is perhaps even significant neglect and abuse of animals in our country. That the offenders are not being called to account over this should disquiet us.
However, there are several concerning possibilities that could emanate from this legislative change. One, by way of example, is that farmers may have instant fines imposed if an animal arrives at a slaughter-house with significant lameness. Naturally, the detail of the legislation will establish whether there really is a problem with the proposed law, and the degree of the problem will be determined by how it is applied. If an animal has been injured during transportation through circumstances that could not reasonably be avoided, then it is a problem. But if the animal has a broken leg that has been in that condition before transportation then the owner rightfully has questions to answer. As with all legislation, those vested with applying it will have quite a degree of influence on how fair and reasonable it proves to be.
Another example of how the change in legislation could be a problem is summed up in the question, “Whose contributions and interests will be used to draft the legislation?” Some would have standards included in rules that have more to do with aesthetics and marketing than welfare of animals. For example, the question of whether a piggery is tidy and presents a good image should be included in welfare quality assurance programmes has been debated recently. My opinion is that aesthetics are incidental to the welfare of animals, even if there is a positive correlation (as yet, a scientifically-untested hypothesis!) between high welfare and a tidy image. So, if animal welfare is going to be legislated in such a way that more criminality is attached to breaches of good welfare, great care must be taken to ensure that welfare laws include genuine welfare issues only.
I’m reminded of a pithy little line attributed to Winston Churchill that dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, whilst pigs treat you as equals. Cats’ superior attitude is no excuse to get at them, dogs’ devotion should melt our hearts and no Orwellian “spin” on pigs’ attitude should “get under our skin” either! Obviously animals have “personalities” and needs that should soften the edges of those tempted to treat animals poorly; perhaps, more crassly, only as means of production and profit.
God’s Word is clear that animal welfare is important. Governments, as God’s servants for the maintenance of an orderly society (Rom 13) have a responsibility to ensure that citizens have reasons not to look after the creatures He has created improperly. Even more importantly, though, our consciences need to be attuned so that we act righteously toward our animals, because it is right. As in all things, how we are seen to treat animals will reflect on the witness we bear to the Lord Jesus in the eyes of the world.