During a recent meeting in Nebraska, a slide depicted two photos. One was of caged laying hens, and the other was a small cage containing two parrots. The message was obvious – why do so many of the public oppose the housing situation for the laying hens , but see no problem with the quality of life of the parrots?
Candace Croney , a Purdue University associate professor of animal behavior and well-being, recently addressed Nebraska producers about the role of ethics in current farm animal welfare debates.
“Looking at these two photos, many people see no problem with the level of inconsistency in their thought process,” she says. “People don't like to look at what they're doing in their own backyard. It's much easier to tell someone else how they should be doing things. When we think about animal welfare , everyone has a different idea of what that means.”
Livestock producers and consumers agree they want food that's safe , palatable, affordable and accessible. However, some consumers question the methods by which their food is produced. As a result, a gap is forming between rural and urban dwellers regarding animal welfare and its regulation.
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Animal welfare isn't top of mind to most consumers, Croney says. “However, when negative things happen, or you have a negative story in the media regarding animal welfare, people's attention is quickly drawn to the issue.
"Everyone agrees it's our moral obligation to do right for the animals under our care,” Croney continues. “But, what does it mean to 'do right' by our animals? This is a big debate that animal rights activists have tapped into with the public, trying to force them to form an opinion on these issues. They're also using their influence to impact policy regarding animal welfare.”
Animal welfare has different definitions to different people. For many, particularly producers, it's providing good animal husbandry, and taking care of the physical needs of animals for food, water and shelter. However, others feel the biological and behavioral needs of the animal should also be considered.
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Animal activists are successfully influencing the consumer's view of animal welfare by appealing to the core values people believe in, such as compassion, justice, fairness and freedom, she adds. Activists also highlight issues easily grasped by consumers, like housing, handling and pain; they then develop modest appeals for change by adopting a high moral ground or even using religion.
As an example, Croney points to farrowing crates to contain sows. “The activists say, 'Can't we give this pig just a little more room to turn around?' That sounds completely reasonable, but the urban consumer doesn't understand how a sow behaves. They don't understand it's not that easy. Their opinion is 'What's the problem? Just do it.'”
With a vast majority of U.S. consumers far removed from agricultural production, their main contact with animals is via pets, zoos and mass media. “More people are thinking about animals in human terms. We don't see animal welfare conversations happening in developing countries where people are still struggling to put food on the table. In the U.S., the way many people think about their companion animals starts to color how they think food animals should be treated,” she says.
Reaching out to consumers
Animal agriculture needs to do a better job reaching consumers through Extension, outreach groups, teachers and education, she says.
“People not connected to the farm are interested in what happens on the farm. Even though producers are busy, they should take the time to open their doors and show others what they do , and why and how they do it,” she says.
Often, agriculture's response on housing issues is that change isn't really necessary, and then they go on to respond with food safety, nutrition, affordability, food access, and sometimes environmental stewardship explanations that don't really address the question at hand , she says.
“We are being challenged on animal welfare, and responding with food safety, which just upsets the consumer. We need to address each issue instead of being like politicians at a political debate who give canned answers to issues they are challenged about,” she says. “When we do this, it makes consumers think there is a reason we are not answering the question.”
Rather, Croney recommends explaining to consumers that today's food challenges  require maximizing the use of land and space . “We also need to mention that it requires us to grow and finish a lot of animals quickly. In the case of sows, we need to show the public how they are fed, and that they are housed in a way to protect workers and other animals,” she says. “The attention span of the American public regarding these issues is about two minutes, so we need to develop a quick and effective way to address these concerns,” she says.
Croney adds that it is more expensive to ignore animal welfare issues than to address them. “If you don't address these issues, you will get left behind and you can't afford that. If there's anything done on the farm that causes pain and can be filmed, be sure you can explain why it is necessary and what is being done to control that pain.”
And when something bad happens that has to do with animal welfare, producers should address that it was bad, she advises. “And be sure people understand you don't do that and what you do instead to protect the welfare of your animals. Take the high moral ground.”
“Make sure people know no one is more concerned about our animals than us, and that we are committed to their health and welfare,” she says. “Develop a statement committed to animal welfare, and put it out there where people will read it. Actions speak louder than words, but words can be very effective when people don't know you or what you do.”