Understanding animal minds

Posted on February 02, 2016 by Sean Wensley

“Would you eat an alien?” was a four-part BBC Radio 4 documentary series, broadcast last December. I had managed to miss each of them in the run-up to Christmas, so indulged in a two-hour catch-up last weekend. Presented by Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol, the series followed the challenges faced by “spaceman” Jake, who had crash-landed on a remote planet. Bound by an intergalactic rule of preventing unnecessary harm to others, Professor Nicol and a collection of international experts in animal welfare science and ethics guided Jake through the questions that he would need to ask in order to uphold his duty when considering which of the local aliens would make a suitable meal.

Were the aliens sentient, with a capacity to feel and consciously experience feelings? Could they feel pain? How would he know? Did they form social bonds and show signs of distress when these were broken? Could they be killed humanely? Did he have a different responsibility to the single alien he had adopted as a pet? And how could the harms he would inevitably inflict be weighed against the benefits he would gain, including his survival need to eat an alien?

Invited experts included Dr Lynne Sneddon who has been influential in informing our understanding of pain in fish; Professor Mike Mendl, who has helped develop pioneering approaches to understanding animal emotions, including “cognitive bias”; and Professor Georgia Mason, a world authority on stereotypic behaviour. Veterinary surgeons included James Yeates, an RCVS Recognised Specialist in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law; and John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol and the original proponent of the Five Freedoms.

Reptile learning and welfare

tortoises in lincoln jan 16The following day, I was fortunate to visit the cold-blooded cognition lab at the University of Lincoln. Senior lecturer Dr Anna Wilkinson and her colleagues are undertaking pioneering investigations in to how reptiles and amphibians perceive the world, how they learn about their environment and how they use and retain this information. Anna’s work is of pressing importance for the veterinary profession. The welfare of non-traditional (“exotic”) companion animals (NTCA) has been highlighted and debated in several veterinary fora, and BVA has established an NTCA working group with the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS), British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) and the Fish Veterinary Society (FVS) to work towards bringing about improvements. Without research like Anna’s, we are unaware of animals’ capacities and unable to bring an evidence base to guidance on their needs. How can we know what type of companionship they prefer, or what counts as environmental “enrichment” from their perspectives, if we don’t “ask” them?

Support for vets – BVA’s animal welfare strategy

Animal welfare science is informing our understanding of animals and this, in turn – not least through radio programmes like “…alien” - is changing society’s attitudes towards how animals ought to be used and treated. It is a field which we as vets must remain fully conversant with, reflecting the findings in our practices and policies, while an increasing number of vets are completing related postgraduate qualifications. BVA will provide support to members in the fields of animal welfare and ethics, and this will be explicit in our new animal welfare strategy, to be launched tomorrow. I will post again then.

Take the NTCA (“exotics”) welfare survey

Lincoln University is currently administering a survey for veterinary surgeons on the welfare of reptiles kept as pets, with input from BVZS, BSAVA and others. Please take part, even if you do not see reptiles yourself. Responses will be confidential and there is a chance to win an iPad.

Sean

Sean WensleyWritten by Sean Wensley
BVA President from September 2015 to September 2016

Follow @SeanWensley on Twitter

Sean is Senior Veterinary Surgeon for Communication and Education at PDSA, based in Northern Ireland. He is also an Honorary Lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Nottingham.

Sean Wensley

Written by Sean Wensley

BVA President from September 2015 to September 2016

Sean is Senior Veterinary Surgeon for Communication and Education at PDSA, based in Northern Ireland. He is also an Honorary Lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Nottingham.