If I could speak with animals…

According to Nordic folklore, the animals are able to speak at midnight on Christmas night. Speak human language, that is, in a way that allows them to tell us their opinions and understandings of the world.

Reading my notes from the Alive Together workshop reminds me of this, because it’s also the basis of the creative writing exercises Daisy Hildyard had us doing in the first day of the workshop.

If I were able to communicate with other animals in a way somewhat similar to how I communicate verbally with humans, what would I ask them?

I think this is a particularly interesting question for an animal welfare scientist. After all, a huge part of animal welfare science is about working out ways to ask animals questions. Marian Dawkins, one of the pioneers in this endeavour, has distilled the definition of animal welfare down to two seemingly simple questions: Are animals healthy? Do they have what they want? And answering the second question undoubtedly requires asking the animals. For that question, we have methods such as tests of preference and motivation. They are great for asking questions about the immediate environment and situations. But they don’t work well for a longer time span and more complex situations.

So if I were able to communicate with animals in words, and if I had the capacity to convey somewhat complex ideas, I would want to be philosophical. I would want them to give us their perspective on questions that I as a scientist and concerned citizen think a lot about as regards human-animal relationships. Questions about the very foundation of that relationship.

As a professional, I’m often in situations where we look at a practice which harms the animals, and the question “Do we have the right to do this?” comes up. This becomes especially interesting if the context involves people who perform the practice (let’s say dairy farmers or scientists) and people who are external to it (let’s say high school students or artists). If the situation allows a real dialogue, then one of the issues that often come up is this: Yes, the animal is harmed, but they also stand to gain something, there is also something for them in the relationship. They get food and water and protection. They would perhaps not survive if it were not for that. They would actually not even exist.

Now, what if we could ask them! Would they choose what we demand from them in exchange for what we give them, if they had a real choice?

I realise that it would not make for a very conventional conversation with a dairy cow or a broiler chicken. Well, to be honest, I think we would have to leave the broiler chicken out of this discussion, because I doubt that at a month of age they would really have the maturity to reflect on matters like these. So let’s think about the dairy cow. Yes, I think she may be up to the conversation, if I could only find a way to introduce the question that wouldn’t be blatantly offensive. Because the first question really is: if you could choose between a life where conditions are determined by humans, or no life at all, what would you choose? And that’s not exactly an easy conversation starter. It’s also a question that only takes us so far. We would have to build on it with scenarios – would the cow choose life versus non-existence in a tie stall? In a loose housing system? With a lifespan of 4 years? 6 years? Would outdoor grazing be a condition for preferring life? I hope cows can deliberate while they are ruminating because this would be a long conversation.

For the other conversation I dream of, I’m envisioning something more like focus groups. My own capacity to convey ideas of different living conditions would not be enough, I would like those who have experienced them to come together and share perspectives. Imagine a mouse focus group, with laboratory mice and house mice, a canine focus group with wolves, companion dogs and feral dogs, a pigeon focus group with laboratory birds, wood pigeons, urban birds and messenger pigeons! The question? What is preferable, a protected but limited life or a wild and natural but highly risky one?

I know, the most likely scenario is that the animals would tell me to stuff it and to spend my time and energy on making their lives better. I’m often not even successful in engaging my human colleagues in philosophical conversations… But these are interesting questions, aren’t they?

Seasons Greetings to all of you, whether you wear feathers, fur, scales or clothes!