Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Five Freedoms: Useful Facts? Or Just Words?

I have a new word for you, “hyper-normalisation”, well maybe not that new (Alexei Yurchak 2006, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation) but describes a failing system, a system everyone knows is failing, but as no one can imagine any alternative, the “pretence” of normality is maintained. Over time, this delusion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the “fakeness” is accepted as real.

In 1965, the UK government commissioned an investigation, led by Prof Roger Brambell, into the welfare of intensively farmed animals, partly in response to concerns raised in another book, this time by Ruth Harrison (Animal Machines 1964). The outcome of the report were the five freedoms:

Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
– By ready access to a diet to maintain full health and vigour

Freedom from thermal and physical discomfort
– By providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

Freedom from pain, injury and disease
– By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

Freedom from fear and distress
– By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of the animal’s own kind

Freedom to express normal behaviour
– By ensuring conditions which avoid mental suffering

These five freedoms have been adopted world wide and also form the basis of two key pieces of animal welfare legislation in the UK, The Protection of Animals Act 1911 which states “to cause unnecessary suffering by doing, or omitting to do any act and” The Animal Welfare Act 2006 which goes further by introducing a “duty of care” not only to avoid conditions, that may lead to suffering, but also to promote positive welfare.

The sharp among you will note that five freedoms are, in fact eleven and importantly are all outcome measures. The freedoms are not legal precedents either but only represent an ideal or a kind of check list to assess the quality of a husbandry system, realistically the definition “freedom from” should perhaps be interpreted as “free as possible from.” Furthermore the five freedoms cannot really capture the current knowledge of biological processes or predisposing situations which may affect welfare, especially in horses.

A simple example of this would be in the failure of the freedoms to address the potential for long-term problems. Fulfilling freedom from hunger or freedom from thermal and physical discomfort or freedom from pain, injury and disease highlights the shortfall possibilities of a stabled horse. In such circumstances horses will experience periods of effective starvation (usually overnight) as well as generally receive concentrate high energy feed and by nature of their confinement, be exposed to potentially harmful air spaces. Furthermore, a comparison between feral and stabled horses shows feral horses spend 60% of their time eating, 10% lying, 20% standing and 10% in other activities, whilst stabled horses eat 15%, lie 15%, and stand 65%. This is a clear change in normal behaviour as well as potentially predisposing to long term health issues such gastric ulceration, abdominal pain, various stereotypies, and inflammatory airway conditions although it could be argued that such horses receive a high level of “stable management”.

The implication is that any true “outcome-based” guidelines on welfare advice should include or consider chronic indices of a failure to cope with physical and emotional challenge.

This latter point is perhaps highlighted in the fifth freedom: Freedom to express normal behaviour. This is perhaps the most interesting or controversial because this is the only “to” freedom, the others all being “from”. The freedom “to” must bring into question what “is” normal behaviour? Freedom to roam, freedom to compromise the welfare of another horse, complete sexual freedom? Arguably a horse demonstrating behaviours relating to pain such as napping, ducking, refusing to jump, failing to yield are all “normal behaviours” yet they are in response to noxious stimuli to which a horse would unlikely present itself voluntarily. This approach however, leads to sophistry, is best avoided but has led to the evolution of the five freedoms to the Five Domains categorizing nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state. The main change with the Five Domains is the acceptance that animals can express rewarding behaviour or positive experiences as well as negative ones hence determining its overall welfare status, and is the basis for the emerging science
of “equitation”. It highlights for example whip use where a horse is “just being corrected” or “encouraged” and questions whether the benefit outweighs the cost? Importantly it makes us consider the things we do on the mental state of horses under our care.

Let me finish with another new word, in fact according to the news the most used word (thanks to Brexit and Trump) this year, and again from another book (Ralph Keyes 2004, Post Truth). Post-truth refers to the rebuttal of factual evidence with reliance on emotional disconnection from those facts. We as vets see the evidence of a failure to consider or uphold the timeless principles enshrined by the five freedoms; gastric ulceration, inflammatory airway disease, stereoptypies, stress fractures, tendon failures, displacement activities, laminitis to name a few. Acting as the bastions of welfare; physical and mental, is in our remit and as scientists and medics we should not ignore the information at our disposal, what is happening in front of us, nor what is factually emerging.

Ben Sturgeon
BEVA Ethics and Welfare Committee Member