Animal welfare issues: What’s best for the animals?

Farm Forum

Most days when I peruse the news, I only occasionally stumble upon animal-related news items. But lately more of them have gained my attention.

Some of these tidbits come up because legislatures are meeting now. Others seem to be continuations of issues that have been in our consciousness for a while now.

This morning’s newspaper contained an example of the latter. Marriott became the latest company to announce their intention to only buy pork from farms that do not use gestation crates. Their news release stated that this reflects the company doing “the right thing for animals, the environment, our customers, and our company.”

We could devote two columns to the subject of gestation crates. It is the one practice for which pig farmers are currently under the most fire. For now, I’ll simply state that their use has evolved as a way for farmers to actually better help their pigs through better monitoring of health and nutritional needs on an individual basis.

Is it perfect? No. But the alternatives probably aren’t either.

I don’t doubt that companies like Marriott feel they are doing something good, but like all businesses, they make decisions based on their bottom line. But if any of their company executives have traveled to a random sow farm to investigate what’s best for the animal itself, I would be surprised.

Is the “Marriott” way of raising pigs (whatever that is) better for a pregnant sow? I’m not sure, but I know there is evidence to the contrary. To me, this news item was just another example of people doing things in the name of animals, when there are probably other motives at hand. The rush for companies to abandon using eggs from chickens that are in conventional laying cages is another prime example.

Efforts in the name of helping animals are also being promoted at the state legislature level. While I’m writing this, some people are attempting to take equine dentistry out of the realm of veterinary medicine in South Dakota. Proponents argue that a non-veterinarian calling themself an equine dentist somehow benefits the animal better than a veterinarian would. What’s the real motive here? If it’s to help the animal, it’s not an argument: veterinarians have the experience and education to best take care of the whole animal, including what’s in its mouth. And contrary to some opinions, there is not a shortage of veterinarians available to do this work.

Another effort that on its surface intends to help animals is the push from some to change South Dakota’s laws to make instances of animal abuse a felony. No one agrees that cruelty to animals is OK and is not a serious offense. But again, is the motive here really to help the animals? Maybe. One would assume that this bill would deter people from abusing animals. Or is the motive a symbolic one, to knock South Dakota off someone’s list of states without felony cruelty laws? It would be a feather in the cap of many outside groups to have this done. Frankly, it’s that outside influence that worries many of our livestock farmers and veterinarians. Groups like HSUS have it out for animal agriculture; therefore seemingly well-meaning efforts get met with a great degree of suspicion.

Whether it’s in the halls of the legislature or the corporate boardroom, I sometimes wonder whether attention to these issues takes away from matters that more closely affect animals. One of these matters is the ability of veterinarians to be the primary authority and caretaker for all animals’ health concerns. Another is the role of unbiased university research to help answer the myriad questions about animal care that still exist.

Those entrenched on either side of animal welfare issues will have you believe that they have all the answers. In fact, there are many questions yet to answer: what is the best way to take care of a pregnant sow? What is the best way to decrease instances of animal abuse? Despite all these important questions, financial support for agricultural research that would help advance the welfare of animals continues to plummet.

What’s really best for the animals?

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.