Sir James Dunn Centre animal welfare meeting

15 10 2014

End of last week I headed to Prince Edward Island: the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre was hosting a conference on mink welfare.

I was scheduled to give two lectures. One was easy: a talk on the effects of enrichment on mink behaviour and welfare. My group’s produced a nice mix of fundamental work on perseveration and mate choice, and applied work on farms, and so I just recycled my Davis seminar. The other was potentially more challenging: a public talk on welfare issues in mink farming the evening before the conference proper. This was open to anyone, and though it was likely some farmers were coming as they’d registered for the meeting the next day, it wasn’t clear who else would.

In the run up, I became convinced that people from animal rights groups would be there too (it was, after all, a public lecture on fur farming), and then worried that they’d ask me about some recent SPCA cases (in particular, one involving some pretty sick & miserable foxes on a farm in Quebec). This sent me into a flurry of preparation. I read all about this farm. I read about welfare laws in Quebec and other provinces. I asked the whole group what bad things they’d seen on farms that weren’t actually code violations (since that’s when things get tricky: they’re legal but still awful). I worked on slides to carefully present my own views, to explain why I work with mink even though I don’t like any intensive systems, farm or lab. I even tried to work out my ethical stance more formally: I don’t care about death as long as no suffering is involved (don’t care about abortion for example, as long as there is no pain or misery); I don’t care why animals are used (partly because the animals don’t know why they are there, partly because self interest seems to play a huge role in how essential or frivolous any form of animal use is judged to be); but I do really care about suffering. So…if Wikipedia is to be believed, I’m a ‘negative utilitarian‘ (but it really is time I sorted this out properly, especially since apparently this view is ‘wicked or absurd’).

By the time Friday night came I was ready for anything: if the room had been half gnarly trappers, half young pierced vegans in plastic shoes, I still could have steered it so that no-one got upset — even if absolutely everyone disagreed with me.  In the end, to my slight disappointment (though it made for an easy evening), the audience was 3/4 industry people, 1/4 vet students, and no-one was even vegetarian let alone vegan: incredible!! But anyway, both lectures went well, and the conference on Saturday was truly great. Everyone’s talks were really interesting and well-presented (and here we are below: Kirk Rankin, Kirsti Rouvinen-Watt, Dave MacHattie, and to my right, Jim Goltz).

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My personal highlights were hearing Kirk quote Darwin; and hearing mink vet Dave telling everyone to install shelves and use Metacam to relieve pain from wounds or birthing problems, and reporting on the positive changes he’s seen on farms over the last 5 years or so – see his IMG_1312slide below:


What was great was not just that he’d seen these changes, but his easy assumption that reductions in stereotypic pacing and fur-chewing are both good things.  When I first got to Canada, these were seen as normal: the mink were just ‘running’, for example, or even ‘playing’.  And I just know that it’s the work done by Maria, Jamie, Dana, Becky and Misha that has helped create this shift in view…