Growing interest in using science to solve welfare problems - Veterinary Practice
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Growing interest in using science to solve welfare problems

JOHN BONNER catches up with James Kirkwood, the chief executive of UFAW

IN a world where “chuggers” lurk on city street corners and evenings are disturbed by cold calls from professional fund-raisers, there is one charity that seems like a throwback to another era.

UFAW, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, has suchalow public profile that the name will barely register on the radar of many potential supporters. Instead of competing for public attention, the charity lets its actions do the talking in securing the donations needed for its survival.

In doing so, it remains true to the ideals of Major Charles Hume who founded the organisation in 1926. He saw its role as the “backroom boys”, rather than a campaigning organisation, in developing a scientific basis for improved animal welfare.

Indeed, even when presented with a juicy slice of publicity material, he was unwilling to make a meal of it. Fifty years ago this year, UFAW published the hugely influential book by William Russell and Rex Burch, Principles of humane experimental technique. This set out the concept of the 3Rs (replacement, refinement and reduction) which have changed the way that experimental animals are used.

Instead of trumpeting this advance in the charity’s annual report, Hume drily noted that “progress has been steady this year but not spectacular”.

Hume’s then novel idea was to introduce an element of scientific objectivity into an area which had up to that point been dominated by sentiment. He wanted to find a way to use science to improve the quality of debate on key welfare issues which, then as now, often results in pointless exchanges between protagonists who are unwilling to shift from entrenched positions.

Recognising that resources will always be limited, Hume believed UFAW should prioritise issues according to the numbers of animals affected, the severity and duration of their suffering and the feasibility of coming up with practical solutions.

In following these principles, he was not afraid to direct its attention towards problems which were unlikely to attract huge levels of public interest but which certainly mattered to the animals concerned: finding better methods of pre-slaughter stunning was one early project.

Under its current chief executive, James Kirkwood, UFAW has continued to plough the same idiosyncratic furrow. The focus of its latest project is the welfare implications of methods used to control wild rodents. James accepts that concerns about the welfare of animals with such negative health and economic impacts on humans will not attract many new supporters.

“But Hume’s attitude was that we should try to do the right thing irrespective of whether it is popular. Humans are responsible for killing millions of rats and mice every year around the globe. In the west we mainly do this with anticoagulant toxins. We know from what happens in humans that when there is bleeding into joints or the cranial cavity, this can be extremely painful. Even the Pesticides Safety Directorate has classed these methods as ‘markedly inhumane’,” he says.

UFAW is unusual among welfare organisations in taking an interest in all animal species, both wild and domesticated. Having previously served as head of veterinary services at the Zoological Society of London, James brought his interest in wild species with him when joined UFAW in 1996. He believes that the impact of human expansion on the welfare of free-living animals will become an increasingly important concern.

Colossal pressures

“A lot of people are aware of the conservation issues but not many have noticed that there are welfare problems as well. There are now 6.75 billion humans on Earth – three times more than when UFAW started and the curve is still rising. That puts colossal pressures on individual animals as well as populations of wild species.”

In a country as crowded as our own, there are not many situations where wild species are free from human interference. Certainly not the garden bird species whose populations are being maintained by the millions of householders who put out food and nesting boxes. UFAW is working on a project looking at the impact of these activities on bird health in encouraging the transmission of infectious diseases.

This is a continuation of a project that James was involved in at the ZSL and involves a number of other organisations such as the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology. It is another feature of UFAW’s work that it has often brought together much bigger organisations into agreeing common goals that will reduce the risk of duplicated effort.

It could be easy to envisage welfare organisations wasting resources in that way when there is a scramble to fund work in suddenly fashionable areas such as inherited diseases in companion animals.

There are many different bodies supporting research in this area. But the work is being well co-ordinated by the BVA which has been hosting meetings for the various interest groups to compare notes and discuss progress, he says.

For its part, UFAW has put its efforts into developing a web-based resource for would-be pet owners to find out about the specific health problems in different breeds and thus help them to locate a healthy pet. But what does James reckon is the biggest animal welfare problem facing his organisation today?

“That’s a difficult question because there is no good system for making this kind of assessment. We need to be able to look across the spectrum and to decide what the priorities should be. At present everything is in separate boxes – companion, farm, laboratory animals, and so on.”

Will the work that UFAW supports eventually allow us to make these interspecies comparisons? “Of course, we would always be comparing apples and oranges and that is an inherent problem with animal welfare science because there is no ‘suffering-ometer’.

“We can make measurements of heart rate, cortisol levels, etc., but we may never be able to tell exactly what this says about what the animal is actually feeling. But we may be able to make sensible inferences and the goal is to achieve a rational consensus based on these often subjective details.”

These are important goals but they are not the sort that can be explained in simple slogans – another reason why UFAW has avoided taking its message out onto the high streets of Britain.

“We are fortunate, however, in having loyal supporters who understand that we are trying to tackle difficult and complex issues. They know that there is no point in going for temporary fixes: we are looking for lasting solutions and that is inevitably going to take some time.”

In these difficult times, James says the charity’s income is holding up reasonably well. But money has always been tight for such a small organisation and it is conditioned into spending it wisely.

One of UFAW’s biggest achievements has been the support it offers for short-term research projects by veterinary students and others with an interest in animal welfare science. Although crammed into a few weeks in the summer vacations, these projects have often produced good quality science, he says. But their main function has been to give a first step on the career ladder to young researchers, who will often go on to make significant contributions to the field.

UFAW is mainly a UK-based organisation and James is unaware of the existence of any equivalent organisations overseas. “But you would be wrong to assume that these are issues that are only of interest to us in the UK and a few other mainly northern European countries.

“The main focus of our international activity is our journal Animal Welfare, which is now in its 18th year. The journal goes out to many, many countries and it is also receiving papers submitted from increasing number.

“So I am optimistic that there is a growing interest all around the world in using science to solve welfare problems and we have obviously played a major role in that.”

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