One Welfare

Among the hats I wear is my “participate in organized veterinary medicine” hat, which currently involves my role as Vice President of my state Veterinary Medical Association. In a recent board meeting, we identified and strategized goals for the year. With each passing year, I find my own ambitions for the association become somewhat less sweeping, tempered by realism and some battle-weariness. But veterinarians are generally an idealistic lot, and so we often dream big dreams. Our “breakout” sessions start to tackle these things, breaking our idealism into manageable heaps. One such group, in which I participated, was dedicated to issues of animal welfare. A member of our team was a public health veterinarian, which meant he was quite bright and terribly earnest, and was inclined to read the more cerebral, “big issues” sections of our journals, while we practitioners were skipping over those to read up on the best ways to treat chronic urinary tract infections or mast cell tumors. Based on his reading of a commentary published in the February 1, 2013 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), he felt our best move was to advocate for a “one welfare” concept that was elaborated by the authors of that article, Tristan Colonius, DVM and Rosemary Earley, DVM. Even though I hadn’t read it, and therefore didn’t quite know what he meant, I intuitively and wholeheartedly supported that effort.

Fortunately (and, perhaps, uncharacteristically) I think my intuition was right. The authors derive their idea from the “one health” concept that has been used in epidemiology and public health circles. The latter they define as acknowledging “the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health and the necessity for an interdisciplinary approach in these fields.” “One welfare,” by distinction, reflects a confluence of the otherwise distinct disciplines of animal, human and public welfare. At first glance, this would raise the eyebrows of those of us who wish to champion human dignity as a distinct reflection of the Divine Creator in embodied humanity. Do these welfare disciplines represent moral equivalencies? But I think in reality it addresses the inter-connectedness of life on Earth, and the consequences that arise when we seek to improve the welfare of one “group” while disregarding another. This reflection can occur while still defending human dignity.

To stress the impact of grouping human, social, and animal welfare under one umbrella, the authors cite the statistic that, “at the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans and domesticated animals comprised approximately 0.1% of the vertebrate mass on land. Today, that figure is closer to 98%.” For better or worse, humans and domesticated animals run this place, and so we are inextricably linked with the ecological health of the planet we inhabit. Increased globalization means that the choices of one nation will impact multiple others. The authors further acknowledge that the “known and supposed tradeoffs in human and animal welfare create contentious problems.” Indeed.

The idea of animal welfare is not particularly controversial, with most veterinarians cheerily using the language of welfare and avoiding the more unpalatable notions of rights and liberation. Much surprised are we to discover that disciples of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have seemed to stealthily integrate themselves into the various animal welfare forums and literature while we weren’t looking. An idea of “one welfare,” frankly, helps ground the more radical elements within this group. In my own sphere, I deplore the numbers of animals that are surrendered to animal shelters when cute puppies grow up to be big dogs, or manageable behavioral issues cause pet owners to give up without a second thought. But I also realize that not every pet is adoptable and that public health is ill-served by packs of stray dogs roaming about, or that human and environmental well-being suffers when colonies of feral cats decimate songbird populations. It is humans that can impact animal welfare, and humans alone, so to ignore our own welfare while working to improve that of domesticated animals is foolhardy. It’s also impractical to animals. It might be wonderful to have all our meat originate from “free-range” sources, but there is nowhere close to the pasture land available on Earth to meet the needs of the increasingly meat-hungry population of the world. Horse-slaughter, whereby horse meat could be sold to receptive markets in France, is now gone from the United States, a victim of troubling aesthetics. A concomitant increase in the population of starving and abandoned horses has accompanied this ostensible act of kindness. A focus on animal welfare in a vacuum creates myriad consequences, some adverse to the very animals whose welfare we seek; a “one welfare” approach tempers this.

But human welfare may also be interpreted as complete satisfaction of human desire, however wrong that interpretation. Our desires to eat so much meat, well beyond what has ever been seen historically, has led to profound deforestation to create grazing space, and has increased levels of greenhouse gases. It is well-noted that flatulent cattle may have a more deleterious effect on our environment than American SUVs. Industrialized and suburbanized, prosperous nations are now so far removed from the sources of our food that we don’t give a second thought to how or where it was produced, or the welfare of the animals who give their lives as food for us. I have spoken before of the awesome powers and responsibilities God grants human beings in the “dominion” mandate over animals. Our welfare, personal and public, must not neglect the welfare of these animals, but must balance the consequences of our choices on the welfare of all.

So much of what we do with animals and our environment speak to us as human beings, and to the human condition. That, and some cautions associated with the “one welfare” concept, is something that I will explore, Lord-willing, in a next blog entry.

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