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Genetic science may provide long-term solutions to animal welfare issues

By Clive Phillips - posted Thursday, 9 October 2003


There is increasing need for a new direction in the way we look after our animals. We therefore must improve our understanding of the impact of management systems on the animal's welfare. We need to be clear what we mean by animal welfare - is it just related to an animal's feelings or the way in which it copes with its environment?

In reality, welfare is the animal's state with respect to the quality and quantity of its experiences. We need better tools to assess welfare - both the lifetime welfare of the animal in its management system, so that we can compare systems, as well as the welfare at specific points in time, such as at the end of its life.

With public concern high about Australia's live sheep trade to Saudi Arabia after a shipment was rejected because of disease concern, measures must be taken soon to ensure that it does not happen again.

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In the short term, the ability of Australian former owners of the sheep, or Australian authorities, to alleviate their plight is limited since they are now owned by a Saudi Arabian dealer. However, a better dialogue with the Middle Eastern countries and understanding of the way in which they work appear most likely to provide the long-term solution. Improved knowledge of ship transport of livestock is also required.

The current episode has the makings of a welfare tragedy and we urgently need to investigate the impact of these long journeys on welfare. Transport need not be detrimental to animal welfare, but the animals must be acclimatised to it and have adequate food and water as well as a suitable environment in terms of temperature, clean air and adequate space available. We must therefore study the transport process in greater detail to improve welfare during the journey.

We must also recognise that the industry self-regulating body, Livecorp, has already supported valuable research on live export, in particular on heat stress effects (heat stress being the cause of earlier disasters). Developing appropriate lifetime welfare assessment schemes and enforcing standards internationally will reassure Australians that, even if their meat is sold abroad, it has been produced to just as high a lifetime welfare standard as if it had been produced for home consumption. After all, if the sheep did not come from Australia, they could come from a country where the animals are not as well treated.

If we develop lifetime welfare assessment measures we can, for example, compare cattle in intensive housing systems where they might only live for 12 months in cramped lots, never seeing an open field before being taken for slaughter, with Australian cattle that have longer life spans and the freedom to roam pastures and socialise with their peers. If I were a steer I know which one I'd be choosing ... but we need to find out which is best for the animal. We must not impose our own values on livestock. We must research their situations and find out what is best for them.

New techniques of animal behaviour research allow us to determine in greater detail than ever before the effect transport has on animals. This has been extensively evaluated for road transport and has led to new legislation regarding maximum journey times under European conditions. Now we need to determine acceptable standards for intercontinental shipments. Other solutions are less attractive. We could export fodder to the Middle East instead of livestock - assuming we could produce it without environmental damage. But what assurances would we then have that those animals are looked after during their lives in the Middle East?

The approach we must increasingly pursue is to send only animals that are well adapted to transport. The technology is now available to modify an animal's genome but we have not yet learned to manage the responsibility that brings. It is only about 150 years since we first learned that animals could evolve to fit into a changing environment; 100 years since it was understood how this was achieved genetically and 50 years since the biochemistry of genetic changes was discovered. Now that the genetic construction of the genome of many animals is being evaluated, it is time to use this knowledge to develop livestock that are better adapted to modern systems of production and transportation.

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Different problems face our companion, laboratory and other animals we manage. There is, however, a rapidly growing appreciation that all these animals are sentient beings with feelings and needs which we should understand and do our best to accommodate. A caring society looks after its animals. This improves human society - as well as safeguarding our animal inheritance for future generations.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Brisbane Line, journal of the Brisbane Institute, which is a cornerstone member of National Forum.



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About the Author

Professor Clive Phillips is Professor of Animal Welfare, School of Veterinary Science at the University of Queensland with previous appointments at Britain's Royal Agricultural College and the Universities of Wales and Cambridge. He developed and chaired the Farm Animal Epidemiology and Informatics Unit at Cambridge. He has published two books on cattle production, welfare and behaviour, edited several on animal welfare and written more than 110 articles in international scientific journals. His research includes the welfare of cattle, sheep, poultry and rabbits, as well as optimum nutrition and reproduction strategies.

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