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Clues to a Great Story: Making sense of animal welfare with science

March 7, 2012 1 comment

Ever get that feeling like you’re just about to figure out a whole bunch of questions you’ve been wrestling? Like the epic anticipation before your favorite character figures out the whole key to the story?

Well, I just encountered a fantastic presentation. I’m still digesting it, but it’s got be up outta bed and roaring with ideas like a kid with a empty box. It connects design, agriculture, marketing, world trade, agvocating, food, cities, farming….all human pursuits. But right now I’m going to focus on its relation to the debate on humane food animal production.

The presentation is by the fellow who helped develop the strong stories of Pixar movies (Wall-E, Toy Story, Finding Nemo etc). They reach out to so many people, to so many people who eat food, and engage. The presentation is called “The Clue to a Great Story“, and the fella is Andrew Stanton.

In the presentation, he reminds us that humans are problem solvers. We’re compelled to do it. I totally agree, our brains are wired for it because it’s essential for survival. You’re being chased by a hungry bear, but you still want to live. Solve the problem. Our activities are evidence that we love to solve problems and create (hello science, design, architecture, games and so much more). But what’s key, is that “the absence of information that draws us in”. Totally the climax in the movie, book, story from a stranger. Or the opening of these stories that draws us in.

But what’s more, is the suggestion that the absence of information is why we are intrigued by animals and babies. There’s such a lack of information there. They can’t tell us their thoughts and that draws us into their story. The lack of information is what makes us care about their story. We just love to finish animal’s thoughts and “solve the problem” of what’s going to happen next by filling in the missing information.

Think about it, animal metaphors are ubiquitous for describing human attributes. In those, we’re filling in the missing information on emotions/motivations etc. with human experiences that we understand. For example, “sly like a fox”….we are attributing slyness to foxes, but how are we to truly know that the inner thoughts (if they have them) of a fox are cunning and deceitful? We’ve merely filled in missing information on the thoughts/behaviors/motivations of a fox. Google “lolcats” and you’ll totally see what I mean (and likely have a giggle).

The challenge with filling in the information is that we all fill it in according to our personal perspectives. For example, some feel that the way animals behave within a system, such as confined production systems (CAFOs for example), is de facto natural behavior or the animal “being themselves”. But other people have a different opinion on what the missing information is. These groups feel that animals have, well, something more going on. They ascribe animals the same rights humans have, because they fill in the missing information with human experiences (e.g. HSUS, PETA).

Both are different perspectives on the same story. Since I tend to cook with a heavy dash of ethical relativism at the moment, it gets really hard to discern between the two. Both have a right to their opinion and to have their own values. But we’re involving a third party that, as I mentioned before, can’t fill in the missing information in their story. Or can they……..

Enter science. (Well hello my perplexing and wondrous friend! grab a drink and relax! the party just starts when you walk in!) Science has helped fill in the missing information on lots of perplexing issues and undoubtedly improved our lives. And it’s application to the current problem of filling in the information on animal’s story brings back a quote that has stuck with me since undergrad (no, I’m not saying how many eons ago that was). Dr. Ian Duncan told me once, “we need to let the animals speak for themselves, and science can help them do that”.

HOLD THE BOAT! Science is getting crazy in here! Was he saying we need to talk with the animals? Ummm, moo? Despite friends’ jest, that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. To me Duncan’s statement means that there is a way to let the animal’s fill in their own information. They get to tell us their story. Sure science has its challenges and is only as good as the people conducting it. It can be biased by scientist’s personal beliefs, perspectives and politics. But that’s why scientists collaborate and go to conferences and have peer review. The potential issues can be overcome and the benefit is worth it. Science offers us a way to figure out how to listen to the animal’s story, letting us problem solve and letting the animal’s fill in their own details instead of us using ours for them.

Behaviour, physiology, neurobiology and so much more comes into play in figuring out how to listen and what their story is. I’m in awe of the layers of problem solving we get to do to figure this one out. And the animal character has an epic spine driving their story (and humans as well): survival.

We already care, we’re drawn into the story. For any of us, just think of your favorite animal. The cow, the puppy. You care, you’re drawn into the story and can’t help but want to complete it.

Now try gently restricting your perspective on filling in the missing information about them and removing your perspective on what they are content with (sorry for saying purple elephant and asking you not to think of a purple elephant, ya you so just did). Now, think of all the discoveries in science and the wonder they create. The insight these discoveries and methods give. The improvements they make into your everyday life (helloooo heating and air conditioning, refrigeration, computers!). Now apply all that awesome to completing the animal’s story.

**I have to give big thanks to a lot of people, but the ones that spurred this thought and haven’t already been mentioned are Jesse Bussard for her song of tweets that always leads to some informative articles, Jeff Fowle for sharing my respect for communicating about agriculture and Jess Keating for her ever intriguing debates on the philosophy of animals and ability to incorporate Calvin and Hobbs into scientific posters.

Moving pictures

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I tried my hand at video as a medium for communicating about what I’ve learned about beef welfare in Canada. Watching this a few months after I made it, it still makes me squirmy when I messed up the voice over in a few parts and there is so much more I wanted to add.

Categories: animal welfare, beef, media
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