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Dairy cattle feedlot

Falling from grace on animal welfare: What have we learned?

The lesson for animal agriculture and the American public alike is that events like this can happen anywhere.

“Can you comment on the animal abuse scandal coming out of Fair Oaks?” As news unfolded of an undercover video made at one of the highest profile agritourism sites in the Midwest, multiple versions of this request began to pop up in my email and phone messages. I’m honestly not sure what to say or if it’s even wise to comment. I have an informal working relationship with Fair Oaks Farms personnel, although it primarily pertains to the Pig Adventure. I have collaborated on research focused on public perceptions of agriculture and welfare with Fair Oaks. We have shared insights and resources relating to our mutual commitment to animal welfare. I am truly conflicted. And, yet, something needs to be said and in my current position, I have an obligation to say it. So, here’s my candid response: I am as shocked, sickened, and saddened as everyone else. I am angry that people can and do betray our trust in them as caretakers and more importantly, that animals, who have no say in what happens to them, suffer for it. Debates about the ethics of raising animals for food aside, I don’t understand how anyone can choose to abuse animals, especially babies. I hate that the public’s trust in animal agriculture is once again broken and that our collective efforts to support and improve animal welfare on farms have now been undermined. What can we do besides try to make sense of how something like this can happen at a venue that serves as a model farm?

Here is a lesson for animal agriculture and the American public alike—events like this can happen anywhere. What is most important is the response to them. The reaction from Fair Oaks Farms is a strong start. They have owned the problem, admitted mistakes, addressed the personnel known (at this point) to be involved, and laid out a plan to improve. Supporting their efforts to right the wrong that was done is more important than resorting to blaming and shaming or to simply feeling powerless to prevent animal mistreatment. For the sake of animal welfare, it is crucial that we focus now on understanding why Fair Oaks might have encountered the nightmarish problems with which they are dealing and think about where we all go from here.

The first challenge that every farm owner and manager faces today is finding employees who will be good animal caregivers and stewards of the farm. The work is taxing. It must be done even under the most arduous weather and temperature challenges and not many people want to do it. Farm managers can pay decent wages, set the tone for farm culture, educate their staff about animal care and welfare, and still see all of that investment compromised if animal caretakers do not adhere to the best practices they are taught.

This is not just a Fair Oaks problem. Employees who do the wrong thing can be found in every area of business. On farms, a major limitation beyond the limited pool of potential caregivers is being able to screen prospective staff effectively and ethically to minimize risks to animals and people. We need to find ways to assess potential employees’ attitudes to animals as we know that beliefs and attitudes dictate and reinforce behaviors towards animals.

Paul Hemsworth and Grahame Coleman’s wonderful body of work has illustrated these relationships with livestock and poultry for decades. It is not enough to train people to a standard—they need to internalize animal welfare as a core value or behavior will break down over time or under pressure. Understanding of experiential and cultural differences in knowledge and attitudes towards animals must also be better incorporated into the development and delivery of training programs. Failure to address these factors may erode the quality of learning outcomes that in turn result in failure to fully or consistently comply with training.

Science reveals that video surveillance of employees can and often does help to ensure compliance with best practices, but only if there is analysis of the videos and rapid feedback to staff. Not doing the latter negates the benefits of the investment as people tend to habituate to the presence of cameras and revert back to problematic behaviors.

The “see something, say something” approach to having animal caretakers hold each other accountable for their actions, as advocated by the National Dairy FARM program and Fair Oaks Farms, can also be helpful. Peer mentoring and monitoring are powerful tools for protecting animal welfare on farms. But they depend on people following through with making and responding appropriately to complaints and doing so in a timely manner. Having a supportive farm culture and a robust whistleblower program where people are protected for sharing animal care concerns with management is, therefore, a must.

Empowering and caring for animal care staff needs attention too. It is morally and logically inconsistent to ask people to provide high quality care for animals who do not themselves feel cared about, respected and protected. Farm culture must focus on cultivating compassion for animals and the people on whom they are entirely dependent. Doing so may facilitate quickly identifying, supporting, and, if necessary, redirecting farm staff who are at risk and who, in turn, potentially put others, including animals, at risk.

Independent, third-party reviews of on-farm protocols and practices are important to provide a sense of objectivity about on-farm animal care and welfare practices. Predictable or infrequent timing of them, though, may fail to identify certain latent problems. On the other hand, overuse can create resentment, undermining morale and the sense of trust that should be placed in farm personnel who have earned it. Audits, whether done officially or unofficially should therefore be used to support a culture of continuous improvement and on-going education for farm personnel. They may be most effective when combined with input sought from diverse, objective, expert consultants who can provide unique insights to farm managers and owners.

In animal agriculture we often talk about transparency. Being transparent about the challenges of ensuring animal care daily and our despair when things go horribly wrong on farms is necessary. That is fully on display now. As we try to move forward, let us not forget that members of the public who feel their trust has been betrayed need to see, and more importantly, feel, that like them, all involved in animal agriculture who love and care for animals are hurting from what has occurred. We must regroup to do even better for our animals and for them. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to studying and advancing animal welfare stand ready to support and encourage people in seeking out answers to their questions, being responsive to their feedback, and helping our colleagues at Fair Oaks and all animal farms find real solutions to the welfare problems we are currently facing.

Candace Croney, Ph.D., is director, Purdue University Center for Animal Welfare Science and professor, animal behavior and well-being, Department of Comparative Pathobiology and Department of Animal Sciences.

 

 

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