I once told you about the ethical dilemma I was faced with when I had to do emergency Caesarian sections on a cow and a dog which were both having difficulty in giving birth in the same night around the same time. To choose which animal I had to operate first had consequences, and whatever outcome I chose, I had to take responsibility for the dilemma which had no obvious solution.
The dog was a valuable part of the family, and the cow was a source of income to the village farmer. Maybe I should have stuck to evolutionary ethics, where in our society the moral code was previously towards treating dogs as an inferior creature in comparison to livestock, which are economically more important to humans. However, when I had to decide to operate on one animal, my ethics and morality didn’t make it easy to overcome the difficult situation, because in animal welfare, the justice principle prevails where all individuals/animals should be treated equally.
Even though different types of animals play different roles in our society, whether they be pets, horses and donkeys, pigs, chickens, sheep/goats and cattle, how we treat them defines the outcome of their importance to us. Having discussed the ethical concern regarding the poaching of rhinos and elephants last week, let’s look at a few examples which could pose ethical concern when it comes to how domestic animals are treated.
Let’s starts by saying treating animals inhumanely results in economic costs. When you take the bruising of livestock for example, it costs the industries millions of dollars each year, even more than N$6 million in Namibia. Bruising occurs especially during overcrowded transport means, or when animals are mishandled or beaten up. Using electric prods such as with pigs and cattle also causes bruising. The bruises tend to be visible at slaughter and consequently, the bruised areas on the carcass have to be cut off and condemned, which can reduce the income of that particular animal for the producers. In some instances, the whole carcass can also be condemned if severely bruised. In addition, the hides of these bruised cattle tend to be disqualified for export.
Some specific livestock management practices are understood by the public as being of ethical concern. Practices such as branding, dehorning, castration and ear-tagging/marking are all regular activities which are practiced by our farmers. Some of these practices such as branding and ear-tagging are even a requirement by law as part of the livestock identification and traceability system, such as with our NamLITS. But some animal welfare activists across the world reason that these practices should be abandoned as they pose the risk of causing pain to the animals.
Similarly, practices such as dehorning and castration which cause some pain can be seen as animal cruelty. But, on the other hand, dehorning benefits both cattle and human handlers by preventing potentially fatal injuries. The fact remains that horns in the herd can be a nuisance and a hazard. Horned cattle require more space at feeding troughs and on trucks, and are mostly harder to handle in the yard or crushes. Castration also prevents unwanted breeding, and thus reduces male aggressiveness. Castrated animals are proven to produce better-quality and tasty meat. That’s the reason why it is nowadays also a requirement of some countries to import only beef from castrated weaners. Carcasses from castrated sheep/goats are documented to have more fat tissue as well. These are all counter-benefits which one might use to justify the need of these practices. But it is important to do the practices correctly and as early as possible in an animal’s life so as to avoid unnecessary pain.
Tail docking (cutting) of sheep and dogs also raises concern. The argument is the tail was put naturally on these animals for a reason, and that is why it should not be cut off. For some dogs, it is apparently a breed standard requirement or a sign of beauty. But, fortunately, this practice was banned in Namibia because the main purpose does not serve an advantage to the animal or even to people, other than for seemingly beauty reasons. The shearing of sheep is also argued to leave the animal vulnerable when removing hair which protects the animal from environmental stresses. But in contrast, the sheep’s wool is used for making warm clothing and other essential products.
The feedlotting of beef cattle is also looked upon as interfering with the natural behaviour of animals because of the animals being reared in confinement. But some argue that these types of animals get the best treatment and feeding under the circumstances. In, Namibia, we found a niche export market for our beef because here the cattle are mostly reared on natural pastures without much interference and no growth promoters, making it the tastiest and juiciest meat ever (at least according to me). The dairy cattle across the world’s ethical concern mostly stems from the early separation of young calves from their mothers, and that these young animals are sometimes slaughtered as veal.
But, raising animals so that that they can be killed at a very young age is looked upon as barbaric. If you take the Nakara industry, the karakul lambs are slaughtered within 24-48 hours after birth to obtain the softest and highest-quality pelts. The pelts are then used to make clothing, shoes, handbags etcetera. The Nakara industry is one of the most lucrative internationally-recognized industries for the country, and is reported to have a code of conduct practice which conforms to international husbandry standards. But still, the practice is criticized a bit by some animal rights’ activists who are opposed to animals being reared for slaughter barely just after they were born.
When it comes to chicken-rearing, the practices which spark ethical concern are between having caged laying hens or free-roaming ones and large-scale broilers, where the chickens are housed in an intensive system indoors. Consumers across the world are moving towards consuming natural products from animals which were raised naturally as much as possible. That’s why buying eggs or meat from free-ranging chickens is overwhelmingly getting in demand, and consumers are prepared to pay a high price for it. Another practice which raises animal welfare or ethical concerns is the beak trimming of chickens so that they don’t hurt each other when picking on each other. Force molting where eggs are injected to mature earlier than normal is also seen as not ethical. Fortunately, this is one area that our poultry production industry regulates.
Raising animals for entertainment is another hot topic across the world at the moment. Things like dog fighting and bullfights are rightfully associated with neglect, abuse, injuries and even the deaths of the poor animals. Auspiciously, the authorities are on the look-out for such practices for the possible lawful reckoning of the perpetrators. Another huge concern is the treatment of animals used for medical, consumer, agricultural, psychological as well as environmental research. Some of the researches pose a heavy ethical dilemma, which would spark great concern from the public if the type of experimentation is not controlled or monitored.
The question is “where do we draw the line when it comes to the ethical concern of these management practices and research”? Like I said before, this is a difficult topic with no easy answers, and it can be quite controversial and political, and has socio-economic implications.
It is mostly up to the individual as to how they feel personally. But with all the hype about animal welfare around the world, the bottom line is that if we use animals for any reason, we have to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, and keep painful procedures to a minimum. In fact, before you use an animal for any purpose, ask yourself if there are no other alternatives.
Dr. Baby Kaurivi Katunahange “The Village Vet”
MVET, BVSc, BSc, Lecturing Veterinarian, Namibia