Public beliefs―right or wrong―have big implications

Factual, targeted messages needed to combat misconceptions
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Finding common ground with stakeholders, providing dispassionate and factual information, and taking appropriate action is the way to address animal welfare conversations, according to speakers at the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare. The event was hosted by the AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Grahame J. Coleman, PhD, professor at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, and deputy director of the Animal Welfare Science Centre, said attitudes impact behavior.

In the case of animal welfare, if people believe caged hens live poorly, that belief could influence them to change their buying habits or lobby for regulations on housing, which could result in changes in management practices on farms.

Often the public has limited knowledge of animal use procedures and practices, Dr. Coleman said, and the distinction between knowledge and beliefs is unclear to them. In fact, people generally don't want to know how that steak got onto their plate in the first place, he said.

According to Dr. Coleman, there is routinely some cognitive dissonance between the uses of animals—such as eating meat—on the one hand and the practices associated with the management of those animals—such as on—farm housing and husbandry—on the other.

"People adapt their attitudes to specific contexts and may actively avoid learning about specific animal procedures and uses to minimize cognitive conflict," Dr. Coleman said.

This reinforces the need for providing the public with factual information about the welfare of animals in all contexts, he said. If the public is not informed, community values may lead to behavior that is detrimental to animal welfare. He gave the example of people caring for feral cats and regarding the situation as universally good for the animal.

The approach likely to be most effective is to provide targeted, dispassionate, and factual information. Given that the mass media is the preferred source of information, Dr. Coleman said, the use of science-based media coverage and informed ethical debate is likely to have the best effect, albeit over a long time frame.

However, that may not be the best route for interested stakeholders who already have their own tightly held beliefs. Agricultural producers and animal rights groups, when involved in a controversial issue, will find media coverage of an issue to be relatively disagreeable, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Communication.

As a result, they will see public opinion on that issue as contrary to, or at least incompatible with, their own opinions. This tends to polarize those who are most actively involved, Dr. Coleman said. In this case, he said targeted educational strategies tailored to individual groups may produce change over a shorter time frame.

Knowing how to get the message out is important. Even more crucial is knowing what message to put out in the first place.

Dr. Osburn
Dr. Bennie I. Osburn

Dr. Bennie I. Osburn, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said that in the past, the United States and its veterinarians have largely focused on individual animal health and less on society's concerns and changing attitudes with regard to the treatment and handling of animals.

"The veterinary profession has made major strides in the overall health of animals and people through food safety and infectious disease controls. So, now it's time to face this important challenge of animal welfare. As veterinarians, who is more qualified to provide balance in the broad discussion of issues and differing opinions? For a long time we've avoided getting involved with this," Dr. Osburn said.

Animal welfare is fast becoming the major challenge for the profession for this century, he said. Existing and emerging drivers of animal welfare issues include food safety issues, political ramifications, demographic shifts to urban centers, climate change, and changing societal attitudes. Veterinary medicine, Dr. Osburn said, is now expected to define the balance among companion animal owners, food animal producers, food retailers and processors, and consumers in the face of the evolving roles of animals in society and the perceived acceptable treatment of all animals.

"It's a huge undertaking. There are innumerable factors that come into play as we try to have a balanced attitude. It's a global challenge," Dr. Osburn said.

The AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges have been leaders within the veterinary profession when it comes to bringing animal welfare concerns to the attention of the profession and society. Now these groups need to work with their counterparts in other parts of the world who are doing the same thing, he said. To do so, Dr. Osburn suggested the veterinary profession prioritize those issues it wants to tackle. It also needs a decision-making body to handle the discussions, he said.

Dr. Coleman had a similar take, recommending that the government act as an "honest broker" that disseminates the values that should govern animal welfare and that these values should be a reflection of community views and current thinking among ethicists. This sets an environment in which certain basic values are accepted as the norm, he said.

Dr. Daniel S. Marsman, chair of AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, said that perspectives on animal welfare are colored by experiences and emotion, but people also have shared principles about animals.

Everyone can agree that animals have intrinsic value and we as humans have obligations to them, he said. Humans also have an obligation to minimize animal pain, distress, and harm and to incorporate practices based on the three R's (replacement, reduction, and refinement). Finally, good animal care and stewardship are in everyone's interest.

Keeping these principles in mind, Dr. Marsman said stakeholders should look for potential areas for common ground. He mentioned state initiatives for agricultural reform, overfishing in international waters, safe transportation, and horse welfare as examples where consensus may be established.