Vet Ethics: compassion and community

Farm rescue sanctuaries are founded on the idea that farmed animals deserve a good life and compassionate treatment. These sanctuaries rescue a range of animals, including pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, donkeys, and goats.

Farmed animal sanctuaries usually hold that animals in industrial agriculture are routinely treated badly. Animals in farmed animal sanctuaries may be rehabilitated from the physical and mental harms they may have suffered. For example, farmed pigs and chickens may need to be helped when genetic factors and cramped conditions have caused leg problems.

Furthermore, animals in farm sanctuaries are often allowed to engage in a variety of behaviours that were denied to them in agricultural confinement. Such sanctuaries aim to provide good veterinary medical care for each animal and refrain from agricultural practices that cause pain and suffering.

A significant element of farm sanctuaries is raising awareness of the harms they suffer in farming systems. Sanctuaries have the dual goal of providing refuge/rehabilitation and animal advocacy to stop exploiting animals.

Those who think that animals in agriculture are mostly treated ethically may find that farm animal sanctuaries have little value. Nonetheless, the general public certainly has growing concerns about farmed animal treatment. For the public, animal sanctuaries may also provide opportunities to interact with animal species that are mostly hidden from view in farming systems.

However, farmed animal sanctuaries themselves have received critique. For example, the political philosopher William Kymlicka and his collaborator Sue Donaldson have raised questions about the best form of farmed animal sanctuary. This critique of theirs is friendly, insofar as they believe that it is appropriate to help farmed animals and to raise awareness of their routine abuse.

Kymlicka and Donaldson argue that although sanctuaries rightly aim to treat animals compassionately and decently, they do not always provide animals with the degree of freedom they need and deserve. This freedom, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, has four components.

First, animals should not automatically be separated according to species. Instread, they should have the freedom (if they want to take it) to mix with both humans and other animal species—even if there are some safety risks involved. Yet many sanctuaries, they say, are inclined towards segregation. To minimise risk, sanctuaries could allow animals to escape to safe zones when they choose to avoid others.

Second, sanctuaries are predisposed to overly strong environmental restrictions—such as smaller yards and a lack of trees or forest—to make it easier to care for the animals and to increase their safety. Kymlicka and Donaldson argue that animals should be allowed to choose whether to roam further afield (within some limits) and even to choose not to associate with humans—or to associate on their own terms.

Third, they argue that animals should be given opportunities to engage in work. This could include, for example, carrying objects, ploughing fields, or producing wool or eggs. Kymlicka and Donaldson contend that animals, like humans, often have a desire to work and can find it rewarding. Hence, they should be given plenty of opportunities for work (without being coerced), even though work can be hard.

Fourth, farmed animals should not automatically be deprived of opportunities for sexual pleasure or for raising offspring (their own or others’). They acknowledge that this is not always possible. But they do claim that we should not simply assume that animals do not benefit from these activities or that it is impossible in every case.

An important theme in Kymlicka and Donaldson’s argument is that even when we diligently try to give animals opportunities to flourish, we sometimes make assumptions about their wellbeing. These assumptions can false, untested, or based more on convenience than on a careful understanding of the animals’ needs.

We can also tend to assume that all species have the same needs. In truth, individuals can have more personal needs and desires which they do not necessarily share with conspecifics. For example, some pigs enjoy forming relationships with cows or goats, whereas others do not. And some animals love to work or want to care for offspring, whereas others don’t. For Kymlicka and Donaldson, we need to be more attentive to individual animal differences.

Kymlicka and Donaldson believe that, suitably reformed, farmed animal sanctuaries could provide animals with truly flourishing lives. They call this type of sanctuary “intentional communities.” Such mixed species communities, they argue, will be even more powerful at advocating for a better world for domestic animals.

Simon Coghlan

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