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December 15, 2010

Scientist Work to Make Livestock Happier

Scientists Work to Make Livestock Happier—Even if It Must Die
-(Shocking Nature News)-

Sci­en­tists have em­barked on a new re­search pro­gram aimed at en­sur­ing farm an­i­mals live more hap­pi­ly—e­ven if they’re doomed to be killed and eat­en.

The aim is to en­hance an­i­mal well-be­ing when pos­si­ble, re­search­ers say, but the ben­e­fits are al­so meant to be redi­rected back to hu­mans. More con­tent an­i­mals are more pro­duc­tive, some sci­en­tists ar­gue: even in death, for ex­am­ple, hap­pi­er cows pro­duce tastier meat.

“With in­creased pub­lic con­cern about the wel­fare of an­i­mals, and con­sumers seek­ing ‘an­i­mal wel­fare-friendly’ prod­ucts, Aus­trali­a’s live­stock in­dus­tries are fo­cused on im­prov­ing farm­ing prac­tices to meet chang­ing ex­pecta­t­ions,” said re­searcher Car­o­line Lee of Aus­trali­a’s na­tional sci­ence agen­cy, the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tif­ic and In­dus­t­ri­al Re­search Or­ga­ni­sa­t­ion.

Lee and oth­ers at the agen­cy’s Live­stock In­dustries di­vi­sion are stu­dy­ing “sci­en­tific” meth­ods of as­sess­ing an­i­mals’ emo­tion­al state that go be­yond tra­di­tion­al, and lim­it­ed, tech­niques.

In a study pub­lished in the Sept. 10 on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­choneu­roen­do­crin­ol­ogy, for in­stance, Lee and col­leagues re­ported on a tech­nique for as­sess­ing “pes­simistic” out­look in sheep. The an­i­mals were trained to ex­pect that ap­proach­ing a buck­et would lead ei­ther to a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive event—a food re­ward, or the ap­pear­ance of a sheep dog—de­pend­ing on the buck­et’s loca­t­ion. Lat­er, buck­ets were placed in add­ition­al, “am­big­u­ous” loca­t­ions; the sheep were as­sessed re­gard­ing their con­fi­dence in ap­proach­ing the buck­et.

“The chal­lenge is to gain in­sights – in a sci­en­tif­ic­ally rig­or­ous way – in­to how an­i­mals’ minds work,” Lee said. Tra­di­tion­al meth­ods largely fo­cus on quan­ti­fy­ing bi­o­log­i­cal in­di­ca­tors of stress, she not­ed – for ex­am­ple, via blood tests that show changes in an­i­mals’ phys­i­ol­o­gy or im­mune sys­tems. Stud­ies of an­i­mal be­hav­iour have al­so been used to in­di­cate ob­vi­ous emo­tion­al states such as pain or dis­com­fort, or pref­er­ences for dif­fer­ent foods. But all of these stud­ies pro­vide rel­a­tively lim­it­ed in­forma­t­ion, Lee ar­gued.

“Un­til now the ma­jor gap in our abil­ity to as­sess an­i­mal wel­fare has been our ca­pacity to un­der­stand the emo­tion­al states of an­i­mals in dif­fer­ent farm­ing situa­t­ions, such as in in­ten­sive fin­ish­ing sys­tems or dur­ing droughts,” said Lee. Some of her re­search has al­so ex­am­ined sheeps’ re­sponses to, and po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives to, mulesing—a prac­tice in which a piece of flesh is cut off the rump to pre­vent deadly mag­got in­festa­t­ions.

It’s “in­terna­t­ionally rec­og­nised that we must quanti­fy not only the bi­o­log­i­cal cost but al­so the emo­tion­al cost of an­i­mals used for pro­duc­tion of food and fi­bre,” Lee said. “This re­quires new meth­ods to bench­mark the wel­fare of an­i­mals in their on-farm en­vi­ron­ment.”

But for sci­en­tists in­volved in the re­search, the wel­fare of the an­i­mals them­selves is a mo­tiva­t­ion only up to a point.

Sci­ent­ist Drewe Fer­gu­son of the Live­stock In­dustries di­vi­sion told the Bris­bane, Australia-based Cour­i­er Mail news­pa­per that meat from un­hap­py cows is “dark, firm and dry in ap­pear­ance, with a tough tex­ture,’’ be­cause of low ac­id­ity lev­els. “It al­so has a re­duced shelf life be­cause of the bac­te­ri­al growth,’’ he added.

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