• Michelle Hunniford

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Updated: Jan 4

As an Animal Care Specialist, my main concern is to ensure all our birds have good welfare. Animal welfare, also called animal well-being, means providing animals with a good life. But what does a good life actually mean? Let's dig into it a bit...


The Five Freedoms


There are many ways to think about and describe the welfare of animals. One way is articulated by The Five Freedoms (Farm Animal Welfare Council, December 5, 1979). They were created in response to the findings of the Brambell Report, which was written in 1965 as a response to Ruth Harrison's book Animal Machines (first published in 1964, re-printed in 2013). According to The Five Freedoms, animals should be provided with the following:



The Five Freedoms have become a global standard, adopted by organizations like the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). They are also often used as a framework for animal welfare audits, like Welfare Quality (2009, p. 15).


The Three Circles


Another way of thinking about animal welfare is to break it up into three different overlapping areas or The Three Circles (David Fraser, Understanding Animal Welfare, 2008). The three areas are defined like this:


  1. Biological functioning or health — providing an animal with adequate feed, water, shelter, care

  2. Natural living or the ability to perform motivated behaviours — providing opportunities for those behaviours that matter most i.e. behavioural needs, internally motivated behaviours

  3. Affective state or emotion minimizing negative emotions, like pain and fear, and maximizing positive emotions, like contentment, inquisitiveness, playfulness



The main difference between these two ways of thinking about animal welfare is that the Five Freedoms focuses on minimizing negative states whereas the Three Circles is more value neutral and therefore flexible. The Three Circles model also explores the interconnected nature of animal welfare, where there may be tradeoffs between areas. For example, an old dog may be very very happy and full of delicious treats, but they are unable to run and fetch like they used to. To some people, the dog would have good welfare; to others, their inability to behave like a dog would indicate they do not have good welfare.


What is "A Good Life"?


So if animal welfare is providing animals with a good life, lets get back to defining a "good life."


Each person will define it differently based on their own belief system and life experience. For instance, a hunter will have a different definition of animal welfare than someone who owns an indoor cat because their ideas of what constitutes a good life differ. Both hunter and cat lover may believe that animal wellbeing is important, but what they prioritize may be different: a natural life for the former and good health for the latter.


Animal welfare is actually very personal, which is what makes defining it so difficult. That doesn’t mean animal welfare isn’t scientific – it is, it can be rigorously measured and studied – it just means we have to be conscious of our own biases. These can seep into the design of on-farm audits, what we purchase from the store, and our judgement of others for their food choices.


Defining animal welfare is like the parable about some blind men (or mice) and an elephant. Each feels a different part of the elephant and declares with absolute certainty what they feel: a snake (trunk), a rope (tail), a wall (side)! Each speaks their own truth as they have experienced it, but a deeper understanding of the whole relies on "seeing" from other perspectives.


No matter how you personally define animal welfare, having a definition in the first place means that you care. And that is something we all have in common.

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