Saturday, May 5, 2012

Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights

It’s been a busy week on the EJE Ranch. For the first time in decades we’ve had a number of calves – about a dozen – suffering from bacterial scours.

The illness was most likely caused by a pathogenic strain of E. coli. Escheria coli is a naturally occurring symbiotic intestinal bacteria. Symbiotic gut bacteria are present in all animal species and are a vital part of the digestive process. Animals – including cattle and people – which lack normal intestinal bacteria generally die of malnutrition unless healthy bacteria are introduced to the gut and are able to flourish.

Occasionally, however, normal intestinal bacteria mutate into pathogenic strains and cause illness. In the case of pathogenic E. coli, the bacteria actively attack the lining of the gut causing diarrhea. The bacteria migrate from the gut throughout the blood stream causing systemic bacterial toxicity. The diarrhea causes dehydration and the injured gut lining becomes less efficient in extracting vital nutrients, causing malnutrition. Unchecked, the illness can lead to death in as little as a day.

Fortunately, the illness can be treated by attacking the bacteria with antibiotics, which  by killing pathogens support the animal's own immune system, and by replacing fluids, electrolytes, and other nutritional supplements. Anti-inflammatory and anti-pyretic medications can also be given.

Administering these supportive therapies takes a lot of work and a lot of time. Each calf is on an individually prescribed antibiotic regimen. The sick calves need to be hydrated with an electrolyte solution 4-6 times each day. Two of the most ill are also receiving an anti-inflammatory/anti-pyretic injection intravenously. The calves are also generally left in their natural environment rather than in a sick pen. This is better for the calves, though it means more time, effort, and fuel expended. Two of the calves were sick enough to be treated at the local vet clinic. Every aspect of treating sick calves adds expense and erodes profit.

Which brings us to the question I was asked the other day, and the point of this post.

An acquaintance who happens to be emotionally invested in the notion of animal rights and food justice asked me why I would spend the time and effort to succor sick calves when they’re ultimately destined for slaughter. Though I rarely agree with the reasoning behind this person’s arguments, the question is a good one and I genuinely appreciate the asking.

In general, most producers would respond with the valid argument that treating ailing livestock is an investment in profitability. You can’t sell a dead calf, so you invest in making the animal well with the aim of ultimately securing a profit on your investment. Livestock producers must remain profitable, else they become ex-livestock producers.

But there’s another argument, and in my mind a fundamentally more important one. Most of us genuinely care about the welfare of our animals. When they are ill we want to make them well. We made a decision when we entered our profession to husband our livestock – to provide for their needs and to ensure to the best of our abilities that they live a good life while they are in our care. To that extent, we are emotionally invested in the well-being of our animals, though most of us prefer not to describe our feelings in such “mushy” terms.

On the reasoning, non-emotional side, we recognize the need for the production of food animals and we are proud to supply our fellow humans around the globe with safe and nutritious food. We also recognize that if there were no demand for meat, far fewer food animals would exist. There would likely be no cattle, swine, sheep, or fowl living in our country except in scattered wild populations and in zoos. In that light, even though our livestock will eventually be slaughtered and sold as food, we provide them with an existence they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Livestock producers believe in and practice animal welfare. We do so because we’ve objectively weighed the evidence and find that producing food animals is necessary and proper. We take our obligations to both the consumer and the animal seriously. We understand that our livestock are not human beings, and if treated as such they would soon perish.

Those who believe in animal rights equate animals with humans. As Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA famously said, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” This is demonstrably an emotional rather than an objectively reasoned idea.

It is also inconsistent with the actual practices of those who espouse the ideology. The same folks who argue that every living entity is endowed with the same fundamental rights as human beings routinely slaughter – at least by proxy – untold billions of insects, reptiles, amphibians, bacteria, and plants, simply to feed, clothe and medicate themselves. Surveys consistently show that while a great many animal rights activists claim to be vegetarian or vegan, most of them, at least occasionally, consume meat.

There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, with people holding divergent opinions. This is one of the wonders of humanity

In the case of animal welfare vs animal rights, one argument is objectively fact-based while the other is purely emotional. There's a difference. It's wonderful that there's a difference, that humans have both reason and emotion. But to understand the world, it's vital to understand the difference and understand that emotion and reason can and must coexist.

On balance, I believe that those who practice animal welfare do considerably more good for animals – and for their fellow human beings – than those who believe in animal rights.

A postscript:

Thus far we’ve treated 12 calves for bacterial scours. One calf, the first to become ill, died. One other came perilously close to death.

The little black steer calf, number 237, was flat out for five days, extremely ill and too weak to stand on his own. Over the course of his treatment he rallied and flagged. In addition to administering his antibiotic injections, I gave him electrolyte solution and milk replacer six times daily through a gastric tube. On several occasions he seemed near death. Ultimately his survival depended on his immune system and on his ability to maintain energy. My efforts, while vital, were only supportive. Recovery was up to him.

On May 1, he seemed a bit more alert and energetic. After giving him his noon electrolytes I lifted him to his feet. At first he wouldn’t stand, as had been the case for most of his illness. But eventually I was able to position his feet so that he could stand. He was wobbly and I had to hold him up for a few minutes. I rubbed his back, gently at first, then more vigorously, in an effort to simulate maternal attention. I stepped back and watched him stand for a few more minutes. He wobbled and nearly fell, standing shakily with head down and ears drooping.

But then he raised his head and looked around. Encouraged, I stepped toward him, intending to rub his back again. As I approached, he stepped away. He took several tentative, wobbly steps, but he didn’t go down. I quickly drove off, located his mama, and pushed her toward her still-standing calf. As she approached and nuzzled him, he sought her udder and began to nurse. Gradually – and still weakly – his tail began to twitch, then slowly gyrate.

As livestock producers, we understand that some of our animals will die despite our best efforts. This is the reality of life and death, and it’s no different in the human world.

When we’re successful though, particularly when an animal has been very ill, it’s a good feeling. Watching that little slip of a calf nursing for the first time in five days was a remarkable moment and one that I will cherish.

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